A Revolution in Expectations

A Conversation with Dr. Michael L. Lomax, President and CEO of UNCF

In his 50 years as an educator, Dr. Michael Lomax has witnessed expectations — and results — increase for Black, Latino, and low-income students. And while No Child Left Behind served as a catalyst for these expectations, we still have work to do.

Dr. Lomax speaks with students at the UNCF Koch Scholars Summit in September 2019. (via Twitter @drmichaellomax)

Dr. Michael L. Lomax serves as president and CEO of UNCF (United Negro College Fund), the nation’s largest private provider of scholarships and other educational support to African American students and a leading advocate of college readiness. Under his leadership, UNCF has raised more than $5 billion and helped more than 500,000 students earn college degrees and start careers. Annually, the organization’s work enables more than 50,000 students to go to college with UNCF scholarships and attend its 37 member historically Black college and universities (HBCUs).

Before joining UNCF, Dr. Lomax was president of Dillard University in New Orleans and a literature professor at Morehouse and Spelman colleges. 

Dr. Lomax recently joined Bush Institute Executive Director Holly Kuzmich for a conversation on post-secondary readiness, opportunities for success, and the challenges that remain.

It’s been about 20 years since No Child Left Behind, and it seems like while we started to make progress, we’ve stalled out in a variety of ways. In some places, we’ve actually seen backsliding on much of the progress that happened in the '90s and early 2000s. In your opinion, where are we falling behind?

We've really had some very stereotypical notions about what people can and should learn. We have looked at the color of their skin, the languages that they speak, their place of national origin, sometimes even their religion as limiting factors on what they should learn.

I'm speaking as a father of a cognitively disabled adult daughter. I know that her world is not the world I want it to be, but it's a better world than it would have been without the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We are not where we need to be on the education of all young people, but I think we have to begin the conversation by saying that the assumptions are quite different 20 years after No Child Left Behind than they were prior to No Child Left Behind, because some people really did think we should leave children behind.

They believed we should leave them behind if they're disabled, if they’re kids of color, if they're Black, if they're Latino, or if they're low income. The expectations were lower for them. The evolution of No Child Left Behind was really a revolution in expectations. I think we're very clear today that our expectation for all young people is that they can learn an incredible amount, and that learning can be the basis for economic and social mobility and enriched lives, and from my point of view, very importantly, for engaged citizenship.

They believed we should leave them behind if they're disabled, if they’re kids of color, if they're Black, if they're Latino, or if they're low income. The expectations were lower for them. The evolution of No Child Left Behind was really a revolution in expectations.

There's no exact template for the best kind of school, but schools should, and must, set very high expectations. If we do, young people will achieve much higher results, particularly if they're in a school where the teacher is knowledgeable about content and subject matter and really good at pedagogy.

We've also learned that we can use technological tools to help young people learn at their own pace. In fact, in 2019 UNCF released a research report, Imparting Wisdom: HBCU Lessons For K-12 Education where we highlight HBCU best practices that can be implemented across the K-12 sector—one of those best practices being that K-12 schools should be intentional about infusing culturally relevant pedagogy into their instructional practice.

Where are we on the educational pipeline today, especially for Black students?

I have spent the last 16 years serving on the board of the KIPP Foundation, and we now have 120,000 students this fall and 256 schools all across the country. What we know is we can produce very high graduation rates, with very high standards, and we will send 50%-60% of our students on to some post-secondary education.

Our students are by and large low-income kids of color. Ninety-five percent of them fall into that category; about 88% are on free and reduced lunch. Yet what we see with so many of those young people is that you cannot tell the difference between them and a middle-class student by the time they graduate from high school. They're just doing terrifically academically; their level of sophistication, their knowledge, their skills are all very high. That takes a lot of hard work. That's relentless work every day in a high-performing and consistent educational environment.

We have demonstrated that the work can be done. We haven't demonstrated as fully as we need to our commitment to doing this very hard work. I've spent 50 years as an educator, and teaching is hard. It is both a science and an art. We should never be satisfied or complacent, but I do think we have to be realistic that this is a massive undertaking.

How do you think we can get out of that either/or kind of phenomenon, and when have you seen that happen before? I mean, I think about it too, in this whole debate about when we focus on reading and math; does that mean we're not teaching civics and science? It has to be both, right?

We also need to be thinking about how we teach reading and math through civics and science, to be a little bit more creative. We're living right now at a moment when what's forcing the change is something that none of us planned for — it's a pandemic. We've seen several schools and institutions of higher learning make very elegant pivots, and some making less elegant pivots, but making them, nonetheless.  And we're going to be forced to make even more pivots this fall.

One of the things that is going to force us to change is going to be the conditions of the world. What I think we still run the risk of is good changes occurring for the few, and bad changes, or the lack of changes, occurring for too many of those who have always been excluded: Black and Brown, low-income kids.

I see parents and families as forcing change, and I think citizens force change. For us to get where we want to go, one of the most important things for us to think about is our civic role. What is the kind of society we want to engage citizens in? What is our role? And as an engaged citizen, I've always felt my role is to be a good parent and a good grandparent, to be engaged in the teaching and learning of my children and my grandchildren, but I have to devote a certain amount of my energy as well, and this has been my profession to the children and grandchildren that aren't mine.

This is an economic issue, this is a civic issue, this is a family issue, and this is an individual issue. At some point, if we can stop seeing everything as “them versus us,” it can be seen as our issue. I think that's where leadership matters. We’ve forgotten the leadership role of the civic sector. It's easy to take shots at what No Child Left Behind was supposed to do, but it was never going to be able to do it all by itself. This is really about what's the unfinished business, and who's going to take it on.

This is an economic issue, this is a civic issue, this is a family issue, and this is an individual issue. At some point, if we can stop seeing everything as “them versus us,” it can be seen as our issue.

Where do you see good leadership coming from on these issues, whether it's at the institutional level, at the philanthropic level, or at the policy level? Who do you think is doing the most effective and innovative work right now?

At the practitioner level, a lot of good work is being done in both traditional schools and charters. I still think those are innovation centers, and that work isn’t getting scaled sufficiently.

One of the things that I do see, which is a very hopeful sign, is many more college-ready high school graduates of color than I have ever seen before. In 1997, I became the president of a historically Black college, Dillard University in New Orleans. Dillard drew a lot of its students from New Orleans and from Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. We had students who had been at the top of their high school class who required multiple remediations their freshman year. That had a big impact on persistence in graduation rates. Today, I see significantly greater numbers of high school graduates of color coming to historically Black colleges. This is really important because at historically Black colleges, 75% of students are Pell-eligible and 50% are first in their generation.

Dr. Lomax speaks at Morehouse College, a historically black college, in June 2019. (via Twitter @drmichaellomax)

I think one of the other things that has happened over the last 20 years is that Black and Brown kids have now internalized this notion that they should be continuing their education beyond high school. Our research shows that Black parents see a college degree as the gold standard of accomplishment for their children. That again is an expectation change, and it is critically important.

I think one of the other things that has happened over the last 20 years is that Black and Brown kids have now internalized this notion that they should be continuing their education beyond high school.

We must recognize that everyone needs to have some additional post-secondary educational experiences in order to enter the jobs of the 21st century. There are some who still ask if all young people are college material. That’s probably one of the most offensive terms I've ever heard, because it's most often applied to Black and Brown young people. We should really be thinking about the post-secondary experience and how to make it effective and efficient for everyone. It’s also not just what happens in the classroom from K through 12. It’s about how to move people to economic success, to careers, and to civic participation.

Well, you raised a point, I was going to ask you about that whole issue of people saying college isn't for everybody, but usually, the people who say that are not talking about their own kids.

I'm going to make an admission — I'm the parent of one non-college graduate. My youngest daughter went to Howard University, and she just happened to take a course in computer science, and she found her calling in life. She went off to Silicon Valley and worked at Google one summer, and the next year she was a Kleiner Perkins fellow. She came back after four years of college, but not yet ready to get a degree, and she said, "Dad, I've decided not to come back to Howard. I'm going to stay in Silicon Valley and do more internships and become an engineer." And I said, "Well, people in our family always get degrees. If you don't do that, I won't support you." She said, "Well, Dad, I actually don't need your support. I can do this myself." Five years later, she's a junior engineer at a firm.

I've learned the hard way that there's not one path for everyone, but I've also learned that when you give good advice, and I started giving good advice and helping, people can achieve what they want to achieve and do it with help. I see the world changing in the sense that we now know that the 21st century workforce is going to require technological skills as well as non-technical skills that are going to have to be strengthened and developed continuously over the working lives of Americans.

I see the world changing in the sense that we now know that the 21st century workforce is going to require technological skills as well as non-technical skills that are going to have to be strengthened and developed continuously over the working lives of Americans.

One of the things we've been thinking a lot about is how we build guided pathways, how we get people on the guided pathways, and then give them the tools to own their own pathway. That's what technology can help us do, and then it's also how to individualize the instruction. I think it’s marrying advising and counseling with online education and a notion that people will be pursuing degrees and credentialing that leads to degrees episodically. It's about making that more efficient and effective.

Let's talk about financing, given that that's so much of what you do at UNCF in terms of costs of college and debt. What’s the role of the colleges, the role of policymakers in terms of student aid, and the role of the philanthropic community? Who's doing a better job right now of attending to them?

There is a huge swath of young people, who will be finishing high school soon and either entering the workforce or going into higher education, that is disproportionately of color, lower income, and will be the first in their families to consider post-secondary education. When we talk about higher education, we still talk about it so often as going off to a group of elite public and private institutions, and doing it at age 18 and coming out at age 22. But, that is the minority of people pursuing post-secondary degrees. We’ve got to make higher education more affordable, more accessible, and more strategic in the way people pursue it.

I believe so deeply in the Pell Grant, but it hasn't kept pace. Giving students $12,000 a year, rather than $6,000, really gives them more to choose about how they will deploy those dollars at the institution of their choice. One of the things we often talk about is choice, and the Pell Grant is the perfect example of choice. But we should increase it in size and give people better advice on where they get a good return on their investment.

For so many Americans, higher education will mean they have to take on some form of debt. I think debt invested in education is good but really onerous right now in terms of the interest rates and extended period of repayment. If we forgive some of that debt, then we enable them to begin to build assets, which I think is incredibly important. For some professions like teaching, where we really do want more people to go into those professions, the public service forgiveness program should be in place. On the public policy side, I think we're really beginning to be more thoughtful about that. We know that debt is challenging, and we don't want people to take on too much.

For so many Americans, higher education will mean they have to take out some form of debt. ... For some professions like teaching, where we really do want more people to go into those professions, the public service forgiveness program should be in place.

On the philanthropic side, I think philanthropy does not do enough to support the aspirations of learners. For example, when we give a $5,000 scholarship to a UNCF student, their graduation rate goes from 35% to 70% in six years — a $5,000 scholarship does that. We should be thinking a lot more about both scholarships and internships, because I think the two are linked and they're great investments. We should see that as part of a philanthropic strategy.

Someone from a major American foundation once told me that scholarship is not a strategy. Well, it's not a strategy if you don't make it one, but if you make it about investing in low-income students of color, who are the first in their family to attend college, it's a huge strategy. Suppose you get a college degree and you're a first-generation African American at an HBCU. Within three years of graduation, you're earning $51,000 a year. Then in eight years, you're earning $60,000 a year, and you're earning as much as a White peer would be earning eight years after graduation. In 10 years, you're earning $71,000 a year, which is more than a White peer, and you are no longer, by the way, eligible for Pell.

We know that first-generation, low-income students are on a mission if we can help them get to it. They're going to move from poverty to an economically sustainable space, and they're going to be employable. I don't understand why we're not making more investments like that.

There have been some large philanthropic gifts lately. Do you see marginal improvement on some of that?

If you look at the Black and Brown graduates of high-performing charters, there are some who go to Ivy League schools and there are many who go to community colleges and other minority-serving institutions. To graduate, they're going to need additional support, and so what you're beginning to see is some of the philanthropy that’s been supporting K through 12 now focus on post-secondary. It’s been 20 years of training these philanthropists that these young people are great investments.

We just got a terrific gift from Patty Quillin and Reed Hastings: $40 million to Spelman College, $40 million to Morehouse College, and $40 million to UNCF. $120 million total. When that gift was announced in three parts, that was the largest single gift ever made to historically Black colleges by individuals.

There is so much money that is sitting in family foundations, benefiting from tax-exempt status. We need to put that money to work. I think that's another place where leadership is important. What's the call to action for American philanthropy?

What are the different ways that you would charge our readers to engage on this issue in a meaningful way?

The real failure to meet standards is not the students — it's the adults. Communities of color must hold all of those who say they have our best interests at heart to a much higher standard. We need to see them working together. We need to see more coalitions of the willing coming together.

The real failure to meet standards is not the students — it's the adults. Communities of color must hold all of those who say they have our best interests at heart to a much higher standard.

The role is to be not just an informed citizen, but an engaged citizen. Pay attention to what's happening in your own community, in the public schools and the charter schools if you have them in your community. Pay as much attention to who gets elected to the school board as you pay to who gets elected to the city council. Be generous enough to engage in the life of someone and offer a hand to help out.  

A mind is a terrible thing to waste, but a wonderful thing to invest in. Whether you invest in UNCF, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the Asian Pacific Islander Scholarship Fund, or the American Indian Scholarship Fund, help someone. If you do that, the return is going to fill your heart as well as provide real opportunity for someone along the pathway that you've had the benefit to be on.

Leave your feedback with The Catalyst editors