Mitt Romney’s now infamous comment at last night’s debate has opened a new line into our nation’s ongoing discussion about affirmative action. When he was Governor of Massachusetts, Romney says he had to reach outside the usual application process to ensure that men weren’t the only ones applying for his cabinet positions. Luckily, he was in a state ranked first among all 50 in higher education attainment, where more than 50% of the population hold at least a 2-year degree (Lumina Foundation, 2010). So with a little outreach, the Governor easily found plenty of qualified female applicants. If he’d been governor of Alabama, though, his task would have been much more difficult, since that state’s percentage of folks with any college is only 31%. And if he’d been leading a state with a large Hispanic population, that number would also be low. According to the 2010 Census, just 19 percent of Latinos between 25 and 64 years old had at least a two-year college degree. For whites, the figure is 43 percent.
One of the keys to our economic success as a nation has been ensuring that All Americans, including newer immigrants and women, get access to higher education. My own all-girls school was founded by a woman, Jesse Moon Holton, who was a leader in educating young women, and created the best school motto I’ve ever heard “I shall find a way or make one.” That motto reminds me daily of brave little MalalaYousafzai of Pakistan, who risked her life just to go to school. Thankfully we don’t live in a society where extremists mount school buses to shoot kids trying to get an education.
But we do put far too many obstacles in the way of people who want this path to economic inclusion. As a society, we should do everything possible—affirmative action in higher education, The Dream Act, funding early childhood education (and yes, a few bucks to Big Bird)–to ensure that every corporate CEO and government leader who wants to hire talent has available to her binders full of qualified and well-educated African-Americans, Hispanics and women of all ethnicities ready and able to succeed.