The Oxford Dictionary defines the American Dream as “the ideal that every citizen of the United States should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.”  A college education, in America, seems to be a direct connection to “The American Dream,” but what is a dream that doesn’t include you or one that wasn’t originally designed for you? Does its intention shift or should it be refined to ensure all have the “equal opportunity” called out in its original intent?

For many years, I’ve advocated for higher education as a beneficiary of its capabilities – the potential to open doors to social mobility and economic freedom. The system has many advantages when all are given equitable access to the doors that education opens.  I speak specifically about those who are marginalized and disadvantaged – not because of capability – but because of blocked potential through policies, systems, and stereotypes.  One unique discovery of my lived experiences, as a Black man, is that options are increased if someone else is committed to helping you open the door(s) that create the opportunities needed to embrace and be exposed to success.  A relationship is a critical component. 

America, based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics, shared that there are close to 6,000 colleges and universities throughout the country that enroll over 18.1 million students annually. These students have a desire to acquire “The American Dream” which I spoke of in the beginning.  However, why are there 40.4 million Americans who have some college but no degree and 744,000 of them are within the State of Wisconsin? Why didn’t they graduate?  What life experience changed their trajectory?  Did they feel they did not belong at the institution they enrolled in? There are so many nuances to answer these questions that unpack the experiences of those who seek a college education. 

Since the creation of the Higher Education Act of 1965, focus and recognition that access to higher education is not equitable and that programs are needed to provide a platform that propels minority students forward.  Today, our Black and Hispanic students are not being retained at the rates of their peers – and those rates are increased more when they are male. Why? It’s been a question I’ve been asking myself more and more lately.  

Access to higher education means more today than it has in the past. Life happens daily, and having skills and abilities within our toolkits only strengthens our chances of not being a statistic. Food insecurity, housing insecurity, mental health, financial illiteracy, and social injustices are only some of the things students are dealing with.  

Angela Davis, a political activist, and philosopher shared, “Poor people, people of color especially, are much more likely to be found in prison than in institutions of higher education.” For me, education was a tool, as a poor black kid growing up in the streets of East Oakland, California, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin that allowed me to beat the stereotypes. Now as a higher education professional, I know as a community, it will take collective work to open the doors that support, understand, and connect the needs of those who seek an education. It is our responsibility.  It is our right.  And it is our privilege to assist in determining which institution our people graduate from.