The knee on the neck of George Floyd aggravated an American psyche already frayed by the pandemic and stay-at-home orders. Protesters from diverse backgrounds marched in the streets across the nation demanding change. Channeling the growing public and private support for meaningful change into action requires Americans, in every sector, to engage in difficult conversations, and to be honest about our problems and deliberate in developing solutions, and we in higher education are no exception.
We in this field have an obligation to engage in this work, because we have become more central than ever to our students’ American dreams. We hold out to our students the promises of an enriched life and social mobility, and yet we often fall short in providing these to all who arrive on our campuses.
In his 2019 book, the UC Berkeley professor David Kirp called out higher education, naming our poor six-year graduation rate of 60 percent for full-time freshmen at bachelor’s degree–granting institutions “the college dropout scandal.” And if 60 percent is a “scandal,” what do we call the rate for Black students, which is 40 percent? It would be simplistic—and wrong—to conclude that our students of color are failing. Instead, we must admit that higher education is failing them.