Every February, Black History Month celebrates the heritage, sacrifices, adversities, but most importantly the triumphs that Blacks have contributed to American history. But this celebration isn’t just about our past, it’s also about our future. It’s an opportunity for each of us to look forward, toward a new generation of Black Americans – in fact, toward anyone struggling with barriers of inequity, poverty or lack of opportunity. We need to think about ways they can take control of their destiny and make their own place in the next chapter of history.
As an educator who happens to be Black, I’m all too aware of the barriers that exist to hold some back and defer dreams. I also understand that none of us can rewrite history, but what we can do is create a path forward, a path full of opportunities. As individuals, we couldn’t foresee the pandemic’s economic and social disruption, much less control it. But what we can’t control, we must find ways to overcome, by preparing ourselves with the skills and resources needed to ride out whatever history throws our way.
One example: multiple sources show the pandemic has gone easier on those with more education. Unemployment for people with a high school diploma or less increased 12 percentage points between February and May 2020, compared to only a 5.5-point increase in unemployment for those with at least a bachelor’s degree.
And while college enrollment increased nationwide over the past 20 years, the pandemic dealt a blow to that progress. Undergraduate enrollment dropped 4.5 percent by the spring semester of 2021, with the largest decline among underrepresented students. Reversing this slide is essential to retaining and growing America’s gains in overall college attainment, including growth among traditionally underrepresented students.
Here in Ohio, institutions of higher education can help by continuing to advocate for more public financial support, controlling their own costs, and continued outreach to first-generation college students. Continued innovation is also essential, an important factor to me, as chancellor of Western Governors University Ohio, an experienced innovator in online-only education that is particularly suited for adult learners who seek a diverse, inclusive learning environment.
I firmly believe that acquiring a good education today will provide a voice for years to come for those who have had their dreams deferred by the pandemic, inequity, or other challenges. Fortunately, higher education across Ohio is rapidly adapting to this challenge, learning how to collaborate with K-12 educators, government, employers, and each other to help every Ohioan — of every age and background — know they have a chance to acquire the skills needed to succeed in our advancing economy.
As we celebrate Black History Month and learn from our past, let’s also make a promise to our future. Let’s resolve that those who will star in the next chapter of history are prepared with the education and skills the world can celebrate for generations to come.
Dr. K. L. Allen is chancellor of WGU Ohio, the state affiliate of online, nonprofit Western Governors University.