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Posted at 6:00 PM ET, 02/ 8/2011

UNCF relocates from Fairfax to D.C.

By Daniel de Vise

Lomax headshot (web).jpgHere is a guest blog by Michael L. Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. UNCF yesterday broke ground on a new headquarters in the Shaw neighborhood of the District, where it is relocating from Fairfax County.

By any standard, UNCF (the United Negro College Fund) is a national organization and a large one, in fact, the largest minority education organization in the country. Each year, we award 10,000 college scholarships to students from almost every state in the union and produce more than 9,000 college graduates. Our motto, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste," is almost universally recognized. Our revenue exceeds $200 million a year.

In fact it's precisely because we are a national organization that UNCF has taken an important step, not only for our organization, but, we hope, for American education. Yesterday, we held a groundbreaking for our new headquarters at Seventh and S streets NW in D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood. We expect our new home to be completed and ready for occupancy by the end of next year.

Why does it matter where UNCF locates its headquarters? How could such a move be of national importance or even interest?

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the motto I quoted above, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." The ideal those words express, that students of color can and should attend college and graduate seems unexceptionable today. Who could disagree?

Forty years ago, however, the notion was neither familiar nor accepted by many Americans. But over the intervening years, a succession of public service announcement campaigns -- V and radio spots, newspaper and magazine advertisements, and billboards and web banners, all built around "A mind is a terrible thing to waste," -- has seen a revolution in American ideas about race and education. Today African Americans and other students of color attend almost every college in the country. Today, less than three miles from where our new headquarters will stand, the White House is occupied by an African American president and first lady who have built lives of unprecedented success on education at some of the nation's greatest schools.

So things have changed since "A mind is a terrible thing to waste," and for the better. But they have not changed enough. Far too many African Americans and other children of color cannot attend and graduate from college, many because they cannot afford increasing tuition and other costs, and almost as many because they have not been given the strong academic preschool-to-high school education they need to enter and earn college degrees.

Nor is this a matter of concern only to those students who are not getting the college education they need and deserve.
In a country whose population will be majority-minority by mid-century, our failure to move children of color to and through college is a national crisis. The students of today are the scientists and engineers of tomorrow. If employers cannot fill their needs for college-educated professional and technical workers from among American college graduates, they will fill those needs from the pools of college graduates in other countries, our economic competitors. Not for nothing has President Obama said that "the nation that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow."

It isn't just about economics. The students of today are also the community and civic leaders of tomorrow. Every study shows that college graduates are more active in the community than their counterparts whose education stopped after high school. College graduates are more likely to give blood, more likely to volunteer, and more likely to vote. And the higher incomes they earn result in increased tax revenues to pay for better streets, better recreational facilities and better schools.

What difference can a change in location make to challenges of this magnitude?

First, moving to D.C. will place UNCF at the center of the education reform conversation that is taking place in the country. While communities across the nation all seek better schools, the nation's capital has become the hub of the conversation. The Obama administration's Race to the Top, like No Child Left Behind before it, and other education initiatives, has provided a momentum to education reform that was missing before. While federal funds provide only a fraction of funding for education, it has turned out to be a pivotal fraction.

In addition to being the seat of the national government, Washington is also the national gathering place for education stakeholders. The American Council on Education is in D.C. So is the American Association for Higher Education and the American Association of University Professors. Both of the country's major teacher's unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, are headquartered here.

But although the most pressing educational challenge facing the country is the educational needs of children of color, none of these organizations has as its exclusive focus minority education--except UNCF. That has been our mission for 67 years, and it has made us one of the country's most visible and respected organizations in the country. We think UNCF has the credibility, among communities of color and in the country at large, to make sure that the interests of minority students are heard and their needs are addressed. And we believe that there is no place from which those voices can be heard more loudly and clearly than Washington, D.C.

Moving into D.C. will also enable UNCF to help students go to and through college in a more direct way. Much of the first floor of our building will be devoted to a "College Knowledge Center," a place at which students can get guidance preparing for college, a process that needs to start not in junior or senior year of high school, but much earlier, no later than the middle school years. Sixty-two percent of the low-income minority students who attend our member colleges and universities are first-generation learners, the first in their families to attend college. They don't have the father, mother or older brother or sister to tell them the courses they need to take to be competitive in the college admissions process, or to advise them on taking the SAT or ACT or applying for financial aid. That's the role UNCF's new College Knowledge Center will play, serving students from the D.C. area and the tens of thousands of students who visit D.C. each year on school trips. And to play that role, we need to go where the students are. Not in a Virginia office complex, but at ground level in the city which is home to one of the country's most exciting education reform efforts.

Will the challenges facing minority education fade away just because UNCF moves from Fairfax into D.C.? Of course not. But just as the introduction of "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" catalyzed change in both attitudes and reality on the ground, UNCF hopes that its move into D.C. will set in motion a process that could lead to increasing the number of students of color going to and through college, first in D.C. itself and then in other places.

"Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand," said Archimedes more than 2000 years ago, "and I can move the world." For UNCF, the lever is its decades of experience as the nation's foremost minority education organization and its national recognition and reputation. Its place to stand, starting late next year: the intersection of 7th and S Streets NW.

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By Daniel de Vise  | February 8, 2011; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Access, Aid, Attainment  | Tags:  UNCF Michael Lomax, UNCF relocates, United Negro College Fund, college access, college completion  
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