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I wrote the earlier blog posts in this series during the summer of 2019, a lifetime ago, before our current trifecta of challenges: racial injustice, recession and pandemic.

My original goal was to describe how American higher education, the gateway to success for so many previously excluded people, was also, because of its structure and assumptions, still obstructing opportunity for many others. And my core argument was that while the revolutionary changes in technology and data analytics were disrupting the traditional higher education model, they were also making it possible to provide access and success to many learners who we had previously failed.

But then came spring 2020, when the issues of racial injustice, recession and pandemic came together to expose the deep structural weaknesses and systemic racism still abroad in American society.

Let’s look at these three events and what they revealed.

  • First came the pandemic. Along with its many other lessons, the pandemic underscored a reality that we had not internalized as a society. Millions of Americans work in essential jobs -- some menial, others service oriented and still others professional. Our society cannot function without them. Yet we take these people for granted, saying “thank you” and “have a good day” while ignoring our deep societal need for the work they do.
  • Second came the recession, taking many of these essential workers and throwing them under the economic bus, exposing the vulnerability that comes with being trapped in the bottom 50 percent of the American economy. Many of these people live with persistent insecurity, three paychecks or less away from food, housing, health and/or education deprivation. To date, however, we have not been willing to respect them and protect their essential contributions economically.
  • Third came the murder of George Floyd, exposing for all to see what people of color already knew: that black people and other people of color have suffered from a racially biased justice and policing system throughout their history in America. Fueled by video technology that exposed and sustained the reality of these injustices, American public opinion has begun to grapple seriously and intensely with the existence and persistence of systemic racism within many institutions in our society.

Taken collectively, this trifecta of forces has created a crossroads for American democracy that must not be ignored. They intensified my understanding that a just education system is an essential component of a society free from systemic discrimination. This, in turn, required that I understand the deep flaws in the traditional system’s structure, functions and assumptions, not just as issues of practice, but from the perspective of “justice for all.”

This blog post is a turning point for me. From now on, “best” practice will include “just” practice. There are many issues to confront. For example, research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has illustrated that academic success among students with equal aptitudes is significantly and negatively influenced by race and income. Many of our educational institutions systemically favor people based on income and skin color.

And as Todd Rose wrote in The End of Average: Unlocking Our Potential By Embracing What Makes Each of Us Different (HarperCollins, 2017), improving the path to educational success begins with ignoring traditional “norms.” Rose argues that we must learn to listen to, respect and personalize services for each person in response to their needs, not our preconceived assumptions.

So, the challenge is to identify and implement the combination of resources, values, attitudes and approaches to learning that unlock the potential and talent of people we have historically been ignored and left behind. This is higher education’s social justice issue.

We know that people with more education generally live longer, earn more money, are healthier and are more active civically (including voting). We want those benefits for each person. But we also want them because they are among the essential ingredients of a stronger, healthier, more resilient and more just society.