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Saturday, January 22, 2022

The implications of Dr. Martin Luther King’s life to American education today

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As we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I am often struck by portrayals of his relevance through excerpts of his speeches and through the display of images with dogs attacking marchers or protesters facing water hoses. These images seem to focus on the issues for which King fought and eventually lost his life. There is often little real consideration for King’s relevance to the issues facing our nation today, particularly when it comes to the state of our educational system.

Certainly, we should consider King’s relevance in a historical context. However, we should also consider his relevance to our nation today.
Because of his many accomplishments, very few would cite his personal example and commitment to education and learning and the implications it has on our nation and the world — 53 years after his assassination. This commitment has huge implications for Americans of all races and backgrounds today. This is why I am privileged to devote my career to supporting low-income, minority and other traditionally marginalized populations including those who are the first in their families to attend college.

King was not a first-generation college student; his mother, father and maternal grandfather attended college. He attended public secondary schools, including Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, before being accepted to Morehouse College when he was just 15 years old (skipping both the ninth grade and his senior year). He was not from a wealthy family and was a child of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

King completed his studies at Morehouse in 1948, earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He continued his studies at Crozer Theological Seminary finishing with a bachelor of divinity and a graduate fellowship to Boston University where he earned his doctoral degree in theology in 1955. To put this accomplishment in context, less than 8% of the U.S. population had completed a bachelor’s degree in 1960 and only 3.5% of African Americans.
Even though King was one of the top students in his high school, he admitted in the autobiography edited by Clayborn Carson to reading at only an eighth-grade level when he went to college from the 11th grade. He likely would be labeled as under-prepared or unprepared for college work and even “at-risk” if he were graduating from high school today. At home, King’s parents were nurturing and encouraged him to attend college. On campus, he had individuals who were personally concerned about his development and success. For example, he was personally mentored by Dr. Elijah Mays, former president of Morehouse. King even credited Mays and Dr. George Kelsey, a professor of philosophy and religion, as major influences in his life.

Given his own experiences, what would King say about the state of education in our country today? Since his death, educational attainment levels have risen for all Americans. However, huge gaps exist in completion among students by race, gender and socioeconomic status. These degree and completion gaps have huge implications for wealth accumulation in our nation.

As a state, we are faced with the need to be more competitive with the number of students who graduate from high school, go on to graduate from college and secure high-wage and high-demand employment. Ivy Tech — Indianapolis offers over 296 credentials, 53 of which are offered fully online. The college has set a goal to award 50,000 certificates, certifications and degrees that are aligned with the needs of the workforce.

What I believe King would say to us today is keep the dream alive by believing in and supporting our young people. He would say to parents, “Provide a sufficient support system to young people at an early age.” He would say to college administrators, faculty and staff, “Ensure that young people know you care about their success when they arrive at your college’s door step.”
So as I reflect on King’s legacy and contributions I choose to do so through an historical lens but in the context of a present reality — a reality where many low-income, disadvantaged and minority individuals still linger on the periphery of the educational system of this nation, be it high school or college. Yet, King’s example still encourages me to fight on, and I am privileged to be able to do so every day by finding innovative ways to support students and remove barriers to credential and degree attainment. 

Here are just a few of the ways we at Ivy Tech Community College have removed barriers:

  1. Ivy Tech has frozen tuition for students. Frozen tuition means the cost of tuition has not increased and will not increase for this academic year and the next. The price per credit hour remains at $149.55, the lowest in Indiana.
  2. Ivy Tech will also cover the cost of all required textbooks again in the spring 2022 term! Ivy+ textbooks is designed to save students time, money and hassle when accessing their required course materials.
  3. Ivy+ tuition encourages full-time students to enroll in more courses, which helps them graduate faster, improving their academic performance and reducing the overall cost of their education.
  4. We know that textbook costs serve as a barrier to many of our students and can be the reason they either forgo textbooks or enrolling in classes at all. In fall 2021 alone, thanks to Ivy+, over 55,000 of our students received their required textbooks on day one of class for free — saving them $14 million.
  5. Ivy Tech is ensuring that transcripts are not a barrier to a student’s ability to transfer from one college to another. The college is making transcripts available for all students regardless of whether the student owes a balance to the college. 
  6. Through its Achieve Your Degree program, the college is working with employers to ensure it supports working learners who are seeking to skill-up or reskill in the midst of COVID-19. For example, Ivy Tech — Indianapolis recently signed an agreement with the Indianapolis Airport Authority to provide customized training for employees and we have similar partnerships with other employers such as Crew Car Wash, Amazon, UPS, Franciscan Health and Allison Transmission.

By removing barriers through these and other ways, we ensure that King’s dream is more than an illusion of the past but a relevant imperative of the present and the future.

Dr. Lorenzo L. Esters is chancellor the Indianapolis campus of Ivy Tech Community College.

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