The best gift my mother and father gave me was to value education.
My father was an illiterate coal miner and a tenant farmer who signed his name with an X, and my mother had an eighth-grade education making her the academic in the family.
My mother taught me that education would give me a sustainable income. My father, who did not have the opportunity to attend public schools, believed there were two things worth fighting for — your family and your education.
His argument was that an education would provide the opportunity to choose my path in life. His words still echo: "Son, do all you can do — no matter what — to get an education."
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As an African-American growing up in poverty in rural Eastern Kentucky, chances of continuing my education beyond high school, much less continuing through to a doctoral degree, were slim. If not for the constant cheers of my mother, my educational achievements would not have happened. While they could never provide financial assistance, my parents made me proud of them for what they could provide — their insights on valuing education and achievement.
Today, in my role at the Council on Postsecondary Education, I am extremely fortunate to help lead the charge so that more students can achieve their dreams.
But many face obstacles that have led to what we call "achievement gaps," different levels of performance between different groups of students, whether it be students from higher-income and lower-income households, minority and majority students, or students who come into college prepared and those who come in with a number of remedial needs.
While Kentucky has received national accolades for remarkable progress in the college and career readiness of high school graduates, it is still alarming that our most disenfranchised students who choose to attend college are having difficulty staying in college and earning their degrees.
Just consider the data. Statewide, nearly 50 percent of first-time, full-time bachelor's degree students who enter ready to take credit-bearing courses complete a degree within six years, compared to 37 percent of low-income students, 28 percent of underprepared students and 33 percent of minority students.
Funding for many of these students creates another obstacle to success and compounds the achievement gap issue. The state's need-based aid programs are substantially underfunded, since far too many qualifying students who applied for need-based aid in 2012-13 failed to receive awards since funds were depleted.
Closing achievement gaps in Kentucky is mission critical and a full call to action is required. In cooperation with our campuses and the P-12 community, we are committed to giving every student the opportunity to enter and succeed in college.
All students, regardless of their parents' level of income or education or the color of their skin, need the opportunity to participate in education to make a life for themselves, their children and for generations to come.
Education is not just a private good as many claim; it is a public good. College graduates not only earn more and contribute more to the state and federal coffers by paying higher income taxes, but they are much less likely to be on public assistance, incarcerated or unemployed. College graduates are also more likely to vote, volunteer and have better health.
In the spirit of this gift-giving season and as we reflect on the new year, my hope is that parents, coaches, teachers, employers and other role models will make an extra effort to give a child or an adult the very best gift my parents gave me — the value of an education.
It will take all of us doubling up our efforts — at the state policy level, in our classrooms and in our communities — to move all students across the finish line.