Fifty years ago, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. As he referenced the Emancipation Proclamation, he spoke of the “beacon of hope” promised in Lincoln's words — and the need for our nation to make good on that promise.
The same year that Dr. King spoke in Washington — 1963 — a new institution was founded here in Indiana: Indiana Vocational Technical College. While it was launched with a multifaceted mission, the college was chartered in no small part to make higher education accessible to all of our state's citizens.
Today, in 2013, not only do we celebrate the golden anniversary of both Dr. King's speech, but also what is now known as Ivy Tech Community College.
And while it is clear that progress must still be made, we have come a long way toward realizing the dream of equality in America. It is equally clear that Ivy Tech and the American community college at large have played a significant role in delivering on that dream.
It is well understood that in our nation, a college education provides the single best opportunity for improved employability, earnings and quality of life. As tuition costs have skyrocketed, however, many colleges have moved beyond the reach of the average American family and beyond reality for lower-income households. The one option that remains feasible is the community college.
Here in Indiana, for example, Ivy Tech's annual tuition cost for a full-time student is $3,560 per year. At other Indiana colleges, a conservative average is $13,000 per year.
Because it provides the most affordable option by far, especially for those looking to avoid crushing student loan debt burdens, Ivy Tech has become the largest college in Indiana, serving approximately 200,000 Hoosiers annually. This reflects trends nationally, as community colleges have become the first choice of a growing number of students, serving 45 percent of all U.S. undergraduates.
What makes the community college reflective of Dr. King's dream is its unmatched ability to democratize higher education. Consider the community college's impact on these populations as compared to the undergraduate population as a whole:
- 48 percent of America's community college students are minorities, compared to just 31percent of all American undergraduates.
- Among America's undergraduates, 42 percent of African Americans, 56 percent of Native Americans, 49 percent of Hispanics and 44 percent of Asians/Pacific Islanders attend community colleges — amazing numbers, highly disproportionate to the relative populations at large.
- To put these numbers into perspective locally, nearly 60 percent of all Indiana residents attending institutions of higher education are enrolled at Ivy Tech.
- 59 percent of community college students attend part time, allowing them to maintain family or work responsibilities while in school. In comparison, fewer than 39 percent of all undergraduates attend part time.
In short, the face of the community college student is very different than the face of the U.S. undergraduate at large. As such, the opportunities that come with a college degree remain within the grasp of a more diverse population.
This benefits not just those students themselves, but also their communities, which will have a more robust workforce, higher income levels and a stronger tax base as college attainment improves.
It is certain that if Dr. King were alive today, he would not be fully satisfied with the state of equality in America. However, if he were to look to the community college, there is a good chance he would see it as a “beacon of hope.”
Let's celebrate Ivy Tech and the American community college as a whole, then, as a reminder of Dr. King's legacy. Thanks to the community college, his dream lives on — and, therefore, so does the American dream.