There is an economic tsunami rumbling through urban America, more destructive than anything we have seen on Wall Street. A new report commissioned by the America's Promise Alliance, headed by Colin and Alma Powell, shows that while the national graduation rate has climbed to a still less than acceptable 71 percent, the average high school graduation rate in the nation's 50 largest cities stands at a devastatingly low 53 percent – an 18 percent gap. In some cities, including Indianapolis, Cleveland and Detroit, graduation rates are less than 40 percent.
Doubly disturbing is the fact that there is an even wider gap between urban and suburban graduation rates. In the metropolitan areas of Baltimore, Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, and Milwaukee, for example, urban students have graduation rates at least 35 percentage points lower than their suburban neighbors.
As with too many other measures of opportunity in America, this new report shows that high school graduation rates are a "Tale of Two Cities."
In largely suburban and White areas, earning a high school diploma is the expected norm; in mostly urban, Black and brown communities, it is not.
These inequities and disparities are putting at risk the futures of millions of young people, as well as the economic future of our nation. We know that education is the number one predictor of future success, with earnings rising at each level of educational attainment, beginning with a high school diploma.
Conversely, we know that high-school drop-outs are more likely to end up unemployed, in jail and living in poverty. And at a time when we are facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, along with increased competition in the global economy, it is more important than ever that we produce the most prepared and best educated workforce in the world. Every child counts and every child deserves a chance to succeed.
That is why the "Opportunity to Thrive," with its focus on early childhood education and making college more affordable, is one of the cornerstones of the National Urban League's Opportunity Compact.
And it is why I was proud to stand with Colin Powell when he launched his drop-out prevention campaign last year. As he said then, "When more than one million students a year drop out of high school, it's more than a problem, it's a catastrophe…we cannot afford to let nearly one-third of our kids fail." We agree.
We are encouraged by the Obama Administration's greater investments in early childhood education, as well as the President's call for higher standards and accountability for schools, teachers, students and parents. The drop-out crisis requires a relentless effort by all of us to turn the tide.
It has been said that "history is a race between education and catastrophe." This new report makes it clear that to avoid an irreversible catastrophe, American public education has a lot of catching up to do.
Marc Morial is the president of the National Urban League.