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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 committed to this work because it’s necessary; our nation has yet to realize equal access across demographic lines. 

Doing this work requires institutional courage — taking an honest look at ourselves to find areas of growth and leading with vigilance, inclusiveness, and accountability to see our work through. We are looking closely at how we can attract and retain a richly diverse student and employee community. Our faculty and staff continuously evaluate academic and student support programs to meet the evolving needs of our students. We are working hand-in-hand with community stakeholders to address inequities to education, health care, and workforce opportunities highlighted in the recent 24/7 Wall Street Reports. We’re not perfect, and we don’t have all the answers — but we’re committed to learning, change, and accountability. 

Confronting education debt is the right thing to do, and it is necessary to prepare the future of our region, state, and nation. Employers frequently share with me the value that a diverse workforce brings to the quality and outcomes of their businesses. And equipping more Iowans with the skills and credentials for success at every level of employment will be critical to our recovery from the pandemic and the long-term vitality of our state. We can’t seize on these opportunities without directing our focus and attention on removing barriers so that each member of our community has an equitable opportunity to reach their educational, professional, and personal life goals. Let’s serve with courage together.

Mark Nook is president of the University of Northern Iowa. 

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