When lifelong educator Gloria Ladson-Billings framed the concept of “education debts,” she had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream” in mind; that one day, our nation would overcome inequality, uplift one another to realize the full potential of our gifts, and let judgment fall on our character.
More than six decades after Brown v. Board of Education legally desegregated America’s schools, we have made progress in our society’s effort to confront racial inequality. High school completion rates continue to increase for minoritized students. The percentage of minoritized students between the ages of 18 and 24 enrolled in a college or university also continues to rise. But let’s be clear: We still have so much work to do.
High school completion and college enrollment rates, along with a litany of research and news headlines, continue to show that our nation has not yet achieved the dream of equality King pronounced at the footsteps of the Lincoln Memorial nearly 60 years ago. That work, as Ladson-Billings describes, is the “education debt” we must confront to overcome centuries of racial injustice in our nation. Education debts require us to shift from deficit thinking (”why are students not succeeding?”) to accountability (“how can we strengthen practice to better help students navigate the societal barriers to success?”). We know all students can be successful. It is our charge to ensure they are.
We are taking this work very seriously at the University of Northern Iowa. The six-year graduation rate of our minoritized students far exceeds the average of institutions similar to UNI. We are investing in scholarships for first-generation students, and we are growing our outreach to help communities confront inequities that fall along demographic lines, among many other efforts. We are