Why Education Is the Key to the American Dream

An open letter to the next President of the United States

To: The 45th President of the United States
From: Allan Golston

Dear 45,

As you enter your first days as 45th President of the United States, I hope you will have time for a few moments to pause and reflect on the diverse range of people you met along the campaign trail and on the millions of hardworking Americans pursuing their own version of the American Dream: the fathers and mothers who return to college to build a better life for themselves and their families; the immigrants who say, “Education is the key,” in languages spanning the globe; the young students whose dreams are inspired by the doctors, teachers, and inventors they respect. America’s unique strength lies in our diversity, because the right to equal opportunity and prosperity for all is woven into our nation’s fabric. But in an ever-changing world, how do we continue to live, breathe, and realize these ideals?

We know that the great equalizer in America is education, because it provides the surest path to opportunity and social mobility. Unfortunately, a child’s odds of receiving a great education too often come down to the income of the parents or the color of his or her skin. While the graduation rate for all students is at an all-time high at 82%, only 40% of those students are ready for college. Only 12% of black students, 25% of Hispanic students, and 20% of low-income white students who graduate from high school are prepared for college classes (ACT 2015 data).

Today, there are 50.2 million students enrolled in public schools in the United States. For the first time, students of color make up the majority of students in K-12 classrooms, and half come from low-income families. These young people already have a steep hill to climb to overcome poverty and inequity.

That’s not the American Dream our Founding Fathers had in mind. These students deserve an education that will propel them to high school graduation–and success beyond. That education should include access to great teachers, high expectations, challenging coursework, and models of personalized learning that allows for a more tailored approach to meeting students’ individual learning needs.

These tools help prepare more students to proudly walk down the aisle at graduation, celebrating with their friends as they toss their caps into the air. But more than ever before, an education doesn’t end with high school, and a post-secondary degree or credential is increasingly a requisite for career opportunities and individual success in life.Yet while enrollment in post-secondary education has increased dramatically, nearly 50% of all students who start a post-secondary program won’t earn a credential within six years. The rate drops to 42% for Hispanic students, and only 31% of black students will complete a degree in six years (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education statistics).

To meet the needs of today’s students–many of whom work full time, are raising kids, or are returning to school at an older age–college must be more affordable, personalized, and flexible.

My parents grew up poor, put themselves through school, and for most of my childhood, they both worked two jobs to ensure that my siblings and I had options that were not available to them. They were very clear that, just as it was for them, education would be a critical bridge to opportunity for my brothers and I. The challenge facing our country today is the same: to give children–no matter the circumstances they were born into–a great education. We look forward to continuing to work with government, nonprofits, and the private sector to make this happen.


Allan Golston
President, U.S. Program
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

BE Smart is a grantee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.