Earning a college degree used to be considered a luxury in our country. However, in just a few decades, it has become a requirement to live even just a decent life. In a world that is so much more interconnected and complex, the most underserved among us fall further behind.

While many of us are lucky to go to good schools, earn a college degree and have a good-paying job, the folks in the lower half of the wealth gap continue to lag because of the barriers put in front of them. We cannot forget about them.

Most good-paying jobs require education beyond high school, yet many of Virginia’s students do not make it to college, especially students who have been historically underserved. Of those who do go onto college, there are major gaps among those who graduate: 56% of white Virginia students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years, while only 32% of our African American students earn the same degree in the same time.

As a former PTO president and mother, it also deeply concerns me that only 35% of Hispanic and African American students and only 10% of students with disabilities earn Virginia’s advanced diploma, compared to 60% of white students. The inequitable availability of advanced coursework for students across the commonwealth hurts our students of color.

According to the most recently available federal Civil Rights Data Collection, among Virginia’s students who enrolled in at least one Advanced Placement course, only 38% were students of color, even though students of color comprised 48% of the school’s population that year. Making these rigorous courses available allows more students to earn college credit while in high school, save money and improve the likelihood of completing their degree.

Evidence suggests that college and career pathways, including those that incorporate rigorous coursework with work-based learning and opportunities to earn college credit while in high school, can improve preparation for — and ultimately completion of — a college credential.

Picture this: Students are learning about the heart in their biology class in the morning, and then going to an internship at a local hospital in the afternoon where they perform echocardiograms on real patients. Or, students are developing a proposal for an affordable housing complex in class, then visiting the actual site and presenting their proposal to city planners.

It’s one thing when a student learns from a book or gets feedback from a teacher. It’s another thing entirely when students learn by doing and receive feedback from real employers. This approach to education makes learning more like the real world of work, and helps students answer the question: “Why do I need to know this?”

Too often, the students in our underserved schools are often not given the chance to show their true potential for success in a professional field, unless it’s in something “exciting” like sports. Now, sports are an important part of the education system, both to give students’ academic career a balance and to give a chance for a career in sports to those who do have the opportunity to make it. However, I think NBA Superstar LeBron James puts it best: “We don’t need more LeBron’s, we need more physical therapists, scientists, police officers, teachers, doctors, professors, physicists, computer engineers…”

Remedying inequities in our system, like this one, is about creating a just society, where all students have the access and resources needed to succeed in our complex economy. We must take a bite of the equity apple and address the challenges in our education system.

The General Assembly must redouble our efforts to support all our children, particularly those who have been historically underserved. Together, we can provide each and every child with an education that is rigorous for students and relevant to the economy.

I am excited to introduce legislation that would establish a College and Career Readiness Steering Committee. This bill will bring together K-12 schools, higher education institutions and employers to help close the equity gap we face here in the commonwealth — building on a shared vision for all our students.

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Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, represents the 51st District in the House of Delegates. Contact her at: DelHAyala@house.virginia.gov

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