Our character as a country is defined by the powerful idea that opportunity should extend to all, regardless of race, background, zip code or circumstance. A quality education can unlock the pathway to equality and justice—forces that can expand opportunity and ensure our nation’s fundamental promise: that each of us can make of our lives what we will.

Shifting the bedrock

Educational equity and excellence must be a part of any conversation about social justice. Our schools suspend roughly 3.5 million students every year and refer 250,000 children to the police. More than two-thirds of state prison inmates are high school dropouts. The patterns are even more troubling for students of color and for students with disabilities.

Educationally, we have made important progress over recent years and since President Obama took office. Our nation’s high school graduation rate is at its highest point in history, at 82 percent. That's possible because of historic reductions in the dropout rate, led by African-American, Latino and low-income students.

The numbers of African-American and Latino students enrolled in college are up by more than a million since 2008. And in 2014, America had not only the largest class completing higher education in our history, but also the most diverse. But for all our progress, African-American, Latino, Native American and poor children are still behind their peers in too many important measures of school achievement. While there is much to celebrate, there is more work to be done.

Where we begin

In our schools, reducing the number of young people who end up behind bars is fundamentally about changing the odds for our most disadvantaged students. This work requires starting early, and investing in quality preschool. The average child from a low-income family enters kindergarten 12 to 14 months behind her more advantaged peers in pre-literacy and language skills. And, often, it’s possible to trace a line from starting out behind to dropping out to incarceration and diminished life chances. Signed by President Obama last year, the Every Student Succeeds Act sustains and expands his administration's historic investments in increasing access to high-quality preschool.

We also need to develop more and better cross-sector partnerships that provide students and families with effective wraparound services and supports. In January, the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services released a toolkit and set of recommendations that can help schools and districts better coordinate health and education services for all students and their families.

Hearing the voiceless

But we simply cannot give up on those already in the justice system. That’s why President Obama has worked to reform criminal justice, and also to help Americans who have made mistakes and are serving their sentences receive a second chance. The Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell program allows a limited number of incarcerated individuals to be eligible to receive Pell Grants to pay for education and training.

Working together and across sectors, it’s possible to take apart the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s possible to ensure that we are the America that never gives up on our people and that, even when they might make mistakes, we hold an enduring belief in the unlimited genius and potential of our children.

Student Survey: Recasting Higher Education

Shantel Franklin, a senior at Southern Illinois University Carbondale (SIU), shares her perspective on educational opportunity, diversity and nurturing the drive to constantly improve.

As a student of color, what obstacles have you faced?

The obstacles I have faced as a student of color in higher education have stemmed from financial issues. I am from a low-income family that was underprepared for the expenses of college. Throughout my time at SIU, I experienced difficultly affording the costs of being a student. It is the contribution of countless departments, programs and individuals that have allowed me to continue my academic career.

What do you feel colleges could be doing to improve retention among African-American students?

I believe that colleges and universities could work to foster better relationships with local high schools to become more involved in assisting African-American students with the process of college preparation. I believe if students were equipped with the knowledge of resources and tools needed to succeed in college, retention rates among African American students would increase.

How does attending school with students from different backgrounds enhance your experience?

The feeling is sensational. I am so grateful for the many people who have paved the way to make it possible for students of color to be able to attend any college they choose. I have taken full advantage of this opportunity recently by applying for the top Master of Public Administration programs in the country.

What inspired you to continue your education and pursue a college degree?

I was not able to attend school consistently as an adolescent, but I was determined to ignite change and not become a product of my past. Higher education is important to me because I am the first person in my family to be awarded the opportunity to attend a four-year university and I will be graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in political science in May 2016.