With the global economy in turmoil, there is tremendous uncertainty and urgency as the new administration prepares to settle into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We know that national priorities are being reshuffled and that it will cost trillions of dollars to address the home-mortgage crisis, proposed bailouts of the banking, insurance, and automobile industries, two foreign wars, and climate change.
We are at a defining moment in American history. How we as a nation respond will determine whether it's the "fall of the Roman Empire" or the emergence of the New America.
Yet, absent from the fever-pitched national discussion is the one subject that will determine our nation's fate: the educational progress of low-income children.
Disturbingly, educational trends and their economic consequences continue to spiral downward. The United States is the only industrialized nation where young people are less likely than their parents to earn a high school diploma; meanwhile the education gap between our low-income and middle- and upper-income students continues to widen, as it has every year since 1980.
A child born into the lowest economic quintile is four times less likely to graduate from high school and 10 times less likely to graduate from college than a child from the top economic quintile. While this underserved cohort of students expands, jobs increasingly require higher levels of education.
The challenge before us is stark: If we do not move significantly more underserved youth to college and ensure that they have the skills required in the 21st-century marketplace, we will face a diminished tax base, a generation that's undereducated and unemployable, and total erosion of America's position in the global economy.
Consider these facts: Dropouts cost the nation $84 billion in lost income tax revenue each year, while each dropout costs his community, on average, an additional half-million dollars over a lifetime in public assistance, incarceration, and healthcare. By cutting today's dropout rate in half, we would generate a $45 billion increase in tax revenues. If we converted high-school dropouts to college graduates, we would develop a generation that contributes to rather than drains the American economy. These new leaders would also help us create 21st-century industries critical to sustaining a safe, healthy, and comfortable standard of living.
We can achieve these goals as a nation. I know this, because my organization – College For Every Student – has been achieving them for more than a decade. We do it by instilling hope, raising aspirations and then performance – a progression that moves underserved children toward college success. Key strategies include linking schools at all grade levels to college partners. Two hundred colleges and universities have joined us in this endeavor, forming relationships with K-12 schools that create a climate of expectation among the students that they will go to college.
One striking aspect of these programs is that the students themselves take ownership. Older students mentor younger ones, or seek out peers who are struggling and find a way to provide guidance. One Harlem high school increased its college-going rate by 50 percent in three years when classmates supported one another in the arduous tasks of completing college applications and financial aid forms. In other schools, our students tutor their peers, read to younger children, and launch cleanup drives that restore their playgrounds, parks, and communities. By serving, they learn to lead.
If adults set high standards for young people, they rise to meet and exceed them. Sadly, in the United States we have allowed low expectations of our youth – especially those in impoverished communities – to become the norm.
We, and the educators and students who partner with us, do this work in challenging settings: inner cities plagued by poverty and rural regions losing their agricultural base. Regardless of their surroundings, our students have proved that our faith in them is more than justified. Over the last three years, 93 percent of our high school seniors – 2,500 young people, many of whom were destined to drop out of high school – have gone on to college.
As a new government prepares to assume leadership, it's time to get our priorities straight. We need to find ways to begin moving underserved students to college. If we don't, the $700 billion bailout will seem like a ripple on a mill pond compared to the tsunami headed our way.
Our top priority must be our children – all of our children. If we believe in them and create conditions for them to succeed, they will. Our future rests with theirs.
• Rick Dalton is president and CEO of College For Every Student, a nonprofit in Cornwall, Vt., that helps underserved students nationwide get to college and be successful there. This article was first published in the Rutland Herald in Vermont.