Rick Dalton is CEO and president of CFES Brilliant Pathways, based in Essex, New York. The educational nonprofit has helped over 100,000 underserved students in urban and rural America become college and career ready since 1991. It relies on the three core practices of mentoring, college and career readiness. Jon Reidel heads digital content for the CFES GEAR UP program.

An equity crisis in U.S. education threatens to have ominous consequences for our economy and society. As China and North Korea are making big advances in college-going rates and other related educational gains, the education GDP in the U.S. is backsliding. Disturbing examples of our decline include:

  • Enrollment in U.S. colleges has plummeted by over 4 million fewer students, most from low-income households, in the past decade.
  • The proportion of high school-aged students who believe post-secondary education is necessary has dropped from 60% to 45% since the start of the pandemic.
  • A national teacher shortage has caused some states to drop the requirement for a four-year degree to lead a classroom.
  • And, recent national test scores in reading and math are the lowest in decades and reveal more than one year of learning loss in these foundational subject areas.

These trends speak to an equity crisis. While the American Dream has been based on an ever-increasing number of young people taking an additional step in their education, the brutal reality is we’re now running in reverse. The net effect of this crisis will be labor shortages, the loss of our nation’s status as a leader in innovation, lower life expectancy, and a greater demand on social services but less tax revenue to pay for it.

In our part of northeastern New York, there are more jobs than skilled workers to fill them: Massive numbers of unfilled jobs in the clean energy sector, for example, are pushing jobs out of the North Country to Canada and other countries.

In the midst of this crisis, college is still the best ticket out of poverty. Young people with bachelor’s degrees out-earn their peers with high school degrees by 77%. In the North Country, the differences are even more pronounced. In Franklin County, for example, just 19% of the population 25 years or older have a bachelor’s degree, while those without a college degree make under $34,000. But as bad as things are now, they will only get worse. Of the 35 million job openings in the next decade, 70% will go to people with a college degree or at least some college.

While the best predictor of who will attend college and graduate is, sadly, family income, some students manage to outperform the metrics that attempt to define them. These outliers can help us understand how to turn this crisis around and rebuild America’s economic engine.

For example, three close friends from the South Bronx, one of the poorest neighborhoods in America, show how the paradigm can be successfully shifted.
In May, the three friends, who first met as classmates and members of the CFES program at Eximius High School in the Bronx, beat the odds and graduated from the University of Vermont. Just last month, Lasana Drame started working as an electrical engineer at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power; Nana Nimako accepted a job at Goldman Sachs as a software engineer; and Ana Sika became a medical social worker at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Lasana, Nana, and Ana attribute their college and career pathway success to the leadership and networking skills they developed, the mentoring support they received at Eximius, and opportunities provided at the University of Vermont through a partnership created by CFES almost two decades ago, a collaborative that has led 400 Bronx students to enroll at the University of Vermont. Their example can provide a blueprint for helping other students achieve similar success.

All of us can play a role in supporting America’s next generation, and it’s our belief that if you’re not doing something to solve this crisis, you’re part of the problem. Here’s how you can help.

Partnerships: Partnerships between schools, colleges and businesses can provide a range of opportunities for students, as well as provide support that expands the horizons of low-income students. Campus visits enable students to learn about college life, and interaction with college representatives gives them opportunities to learn about the admissions process and paying for college. In addition, corporate partners can provide workplace internships, job-shadowing and mentoring opportunities. CFES has partnered with hundreds of colleges, companies and corporations including the University of Vermont and the University of Wyoming, and EY, Colgate Palmolive and TransPerfect.

Essential Skills: Over its 30-year history, CFES’ most successful Scholars — those who graduated from college on time and secured well-paying jobs that moved them and their families out of poverty — were not necessarily those with the highest test scores or the best grades, but those who possessed what we call the Essential Skills, which include goal setting, teamwork, leadership, networking, perseverance and agility.

Mentoring: Mentors are role models who show younger peers what it takes to succeed. They can share first-hand experiences and help students overcome challenges to becoming college and career ready. Mentors play an active and vital role in the success of their mentees’ achievements, from getting better grades to earning college scholarships. The benefits of peer mentoring are enduring, providing leadership and networking skills that support students in future jobs.

There’s no panacea to the education crisis. But the first step is recognizing that it is a problem that can be solved, then implementing proven solutions to do something about it.