UNCF President: Education Investment More Important Than Ever

The head of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) told Wilmington parents and educators on Thursday that African Americans do not receive a high school education that adequately prepares them for college. Dr. Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of UNCF, spoke about educational equity and the environmental challenges facing children in communities across America at the Christina Cultural Arts Center. Lomax also shared the changes UNCF is instituting to boost student readiness in this competitive, technology-driven global economy.

Town Square Delaware caught up with Dr. Lomax here in Wilmington.


Town Square Delaware: We’ve all heard of the UNCF, but please remind us of your mission and what you do?

Dr. Michael Lomax: Quite simply, the UNCF is America’s largest and most effective minority education organization. But it’s so much more than that.

Yes, we enable more than 60,000 students each year to attend college and get the education they need—and that the nation needs them to have. Every year we award more than $100 million through 10,000 scholarships and internships under 400 programs for students from low- and moderate-income families, attending more than 1,100 institutions and universities across the country. We give financial support to 37 member historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) so they can keep their academic programs strong and their tuition affordable.

But our advocacy and presence in the public eye has fundamentally changed the way the nation thinks about education and race. In addition to the scholarship assistance, we advocate for high-quality K-12 education, so that African American parents have the tools to ensure their children are adequately prepared for college. We advocate on behalf of our 37-member HBUCs on Capitol Hill, so that their voices are heard when it comes to federal policy and funding issues that impact them.

Our organization’s motto—“A mind is a terrible thing to waste”—debuted more than 40 years ago, when even the concept that African Americans should go to college was not accepted by the broader population. Today, we’ve expanded our motto to “A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in.” We’ve made tremendous progress as a nation, but there’s a long way to go to reach racial equality, and educational opportunity must be an important part of that journey. And reaching those measures of equality is going to take significant investments into high-quality K-12 education and significant investments into higher education, to ensure our students are prepared to earn the degrees for which they aspire.

TSD: When you look across the country, what are some of the challenges you see in meeting your mission?

ML: The world is changing. The workforce is changing to reflect the global community. Kids are entering into a highly competitive world and our schools and communities are not preparing our kids to meet that bar. There was a time when a high school diploma and a good work ethic qualified a worker for a good job. But today almost all the fastest-growing and best-paying jobs require a college education, and employers need college-educated employees to compete in the global economy.

Nearly half of all black children who begin kindergarten do not graduate from high school. Of those that enroll in college, only 40 percent finish within six years. This is not what we want for our children, and is not what our communities, our businesses or our country need. Frankly, it’s a crisis.

Thankfully, through the support of generous partners and sponsors who believe in our work, we’re working to address some of these challenges. Specifically as it pertains to career-readiness, Lilly Endowment, Inc. in October awarded UNCF a $50 million grant to implement the UNCF Career Pathways Initiative. This Initiative will award competitive grants to four-year historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and predominantly black institutions (PBIs) to help students gain the knowledge, preparation, insight and skills needed for meaningful employment in a technology-driven, global economy.

TSD: As a nation we have wrestled with many of these issues for decades. Are there examples where we got it right? 

ML: Yes, there are in fact hundreds of schools ─ even entire cities─ that are beating these odds. When Arne Duncan gave his final speech as Education Secretary two weeks ago, he noted in his remarks that New York City and San Antonio have committed to early childhood education –which we know is a key step in strengthening a child’s cradle-to-career readiness.

Through my work as a board member with the KIPP Foundation, which primarily serves low-income students of color, we’ve worked to expand this high-performing network of charter schools, which are producing college-ready high school graduates who will be prepared to meet the demands of the workforce. From Baltimore to Jacksonville to Kansas City and Atlanta, KIPP schools in these cities and others across 20 states are getting it right and making investments into students’ education.

There are examples across the country where schools serving minority and low-income populations are excelling. Often you see these schools really engaging with their families and communities to create a sense of togetherness and shared responsibility. And you see strong school leaders who are able to uphold high standards for both their educators and their scholars—and provide them with the tools and the time to enable them to succeed. There are many methods and places where this sort of success is happening.

TSD: What should guests expect to hear tonight?

ML: First, this will be a conversation, so I look forward to meeting the Wilmington community and learning more about the issues and challenges they’re facing. Of course I want to hit on the issues of excellence and equity, and the important topic in your community of opting out. And the fact that—yes, college is expensive, and many of our African American families live in lower-income environments—college opportunity is an absolutely indispensable part of our national quest for social and economic justice. African Americans do not receive a high school education that adequately prepares them for college. African American rates of college attendance and graduation are still much lower than those of other groups. So, tonight I want to engage the Wilmington community around how we address the issues of equity and excellence to fundamentally change this reality.

I also want folks who attend to realize that your child’s education is a battle worth fighting for every day. Six decades ago, African Americans had to fight to desegregate schools. Today, not only are we fighting for a myriad of social justice causes, but we must fight to ensure our children have access to high-quality schools. And the fight must continue by parents to ensure that students are not opting out of tests and that teachers are using rigorous curriculum that prepares our students for college and beyond.

Editor’s Note: Tonight’s event is a joint effort of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, the CACC, Wilmington’s Parent Advocacy Council for EducationThe Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, the Wilmington Education Strategies Think Tank, NAACP State Conference, National Coalition of 100 Black Women-DE Chapter, and Revive the Village ~ A United Way of Delaware African American Initiative.

Dr. Michael L. Lomax will speak Thursday, Jan 14 at the Christina Cultural Arts Center, beginning at 6:00 p.m. For more information, and to RSVP, visit Equity in Education Community Discussion Series: Michael L. Lomax.

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