Over 50 years after Dr. King, an educational dream still deferred
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In his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for racial and economic justice for all, saying, “we refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.” Yet today, over half a century later, the opportunity Dr. King fought for remains out of reach for many of America’s children.

In fact, some inequities have become more deeply entrenched since Dr. King’s lifetime. Income inequality is at its greatest in more than 50 years, and school segregation is on the rise. The federal government only supports 8 to 9 percent of school budgets, with the rest falling on state and local governments—a construct that reduces the spending per student in high-poverty districts by as much as 15.6 percent per student. And while graduation rates have been on the rise over the past decades, this progress has left the students who would benefit most from this economic mobility behind: students in the highest income quartile are 5 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than those in the lowest income quartile (58 percent vs. 11 percent.)

While there is plenty of cause for despair, we see hope in the next generation of young minds and the power of education to make their dreams a reality. As students are leading global climate movements, advocating for safer schools, and speaking up for their own education, the power of education as the “great equalizer” becomes tangible: not only does higher education boost lifetime earnings by an average of $1 million; it enhances our society and democracy by creating our next generation of self-advocates, leaders, and change-makers.

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In 1981, our founder, Eugene Lang, was inspired by Dr. King—and by the opportunity afforded to him by his own college education—to give back to a class of East Harlem sixth graders by promising to pay for their college education. This promise had ripple effects throughout the country, inspiring others to follow, and Lang went on to form the “I Have A Dream” Foundation, which has gone on to provide academic, social-emotional, and college tuition support to over 18,000 students. These students are over three times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their peers.

Until every child is afforded an equal opportunity on a federal level, organizations like the “I Have A Dream” Foundation will be sorely necessary. We call on you to follow the example of Eugene Lang, and those who followed, to help bridge the gap when our policy, and our country, are continuing to fail our young people.

Let’s build a world where every child’s dream can be a reality, and where more economically, racially, and experientially diverse institutions of higher education shape our democracy and our future. As a nation, we can all benefit from the lessons and ideas these bright young minds have to offer.

Eugena Oh is President & CEO of the "I Have A Dream" Foundation, which has provided academic, social-emotional, & college tuition support to over 18,000 students since 1981.