Black students in America need wholesale higher education reforms

From admissions to outreach and student data collection, the undergraduate journey must be reviewed to narrow unacceptable social and educational inequalities, say Kim Hunter Reed and Ray Belton

August 28, 2022
Black student in university library

We don’t recall a time in our recent memory when there has been such a robust discussion around erasing equity gaps in US education. Yes, we’ve been here before as African Americans struggling to make sense of senseless violence, navigating a world of challenges and new uncertainty, but now the choir calling for systemic change in education – to truly advance opportunities for all – is both more diverse and more committed than ever.

We know the why – why we must commit to removing barriers to educational attainment. The statistics are grim and stubbornly persistent. Across America, and in our state of Louisiana, educational attainment, earnings, health and welfare are far more positive if you are white than if you are a person of colour. The facts are not new, but the equity imperative is clear: in today’s knowledge economy, access to market-relevant education and training is a prerequisite to success.

It’s work we’re committed to in Louisiana, but we know there is strength in numbers and in systems, too. That’s why Louisiana joined higher education leaders from across the country earlier this year in supporting the National Association of System Heads’ Power of Systems agenda. This transformational agenda highlights five imperatives for the future of higher education, including achieving equity through just and accessible opportunities for all students by removing structural and systemic barriers to success.

In a state where one in five individuals lives below the poverty line, the urgency drives us in this work. Our masterplan for higher education, titled Louisiana Prospers: Driving Our Talent Imperative, includes deep attention to achieving equity by engaging underserved populations, removing barriers and implementing strategies that increase access and student success. The plan further aligns with our obligation to rightfully assume the responsibility of producing talent sufficient to respond to the workforce needs of business and industry.

Louisiana proudly supports the only historically black college and university (HBCU) system in the US, the Southern University System, as a living legacy of determination, commitment and success. The campuses in the Southern System, which serve more than 12,000 students on locations across Louisiana’s capital city of Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport, work diligently every day to level the playing field of opportunity for our students and to share success lessons for serving students of colour across our state. The role that these institutions play and the outcomes that are ultimately achieved will dictate the fulfillment of our strategic aims.

Getting to our attainment goal is not a small task to be accomplished by tinkering around the edges. System redesign is hard, but it is necessary. It must take place across the education ecosystem and at scale. Our work must be data-informed – requiring us to take a hard look at new student enrolment, retention and completion information by race of our students and to act on what we learn.

We must also redesign students’ high school experiences to bring more college to kids, rather than waiting for kids to go to college. We must reform gateway courses that lead to high failure rates and dropouts, adopt high-impact practices and embed relevant work-based learning experiences into our curricula.

And in today’s digital learning environment, we must ensure access to a laptop and reliable broadband connectivity to attain digital inclusion for all students and communities across this country.

Having a shared vision that focuses on accelerating student learning, increasing affordability and eliminating persistent equity gaps makes a difference. Our state benefits from strong higher education leaders in both public and private institutions working collaboratively, standing shoulder to shoulder with our governor, our legislature, our high school partners and our stakeholders in embracing this work.

The urgency of now is to realise that poverty is the enemy and education is the solution. In today’s America, family income, race, parents’ education levels and even your zip code speak loudly about your likelihood of success in college.

That is unacceptable, and together we must change that reality for our students by ensuring that education is equitable, affordable and attainable for all.

In Louisiana, we are answering the call, focused on doing the hard systemic work necessary to make meaningful change in our quest to move more people from poverty to prosperity. Even as we work at the state level, though, this equity imperative is a national imperative. Our future demands that we get this right.

Kim Hunter Reed is Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, while Ray L. Belton is president of the Southern University System.

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Reader's comments (1)

wholesale reform? that's demeaning. You don't really mean wholesale do you?

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