America is the land of opportunity, and should be proud of it

In many parts of the world, if you are born poor you will almost certainly stay poor for your entire life. You don’t get the chance to get a good education or go on to a well-paid career. You struggle – picking crops, mopping floors, mowing lawns, waiting on tables, or in other low-paying jobs, barely making ends meet.

But in America – known the world over as the Land of Opportunity – upward mobility is the national ideal. It doesn’t always happen, of course. But just the possibility draws immigrants from the world over to our shores – my own parents included. For most, education is the key that enables them or their children to break out of poverty and enter the middle class or go higher, as I and millions of others have been able to do.

For this reason, providing equal educational opportunity for all is vitally important – not just for students who can get college degrees that transform their lives, but for America. We need an educated workforce to keep our economy and our nation strong. We need to keep the American Dream alive. 

A stereotype persists that – to put it crudely – poor kids are dumb. Cooke Scholars prove every day that this is nonsense. They are some of the smartest and most capable people on our planet. All they needed was a helping hand and financial aid to succeed.

One immigrant who achieved the American Dream and helped thousands more young people do so as well was Jack Kent Cooke. Born in Canada in 1912, he never had the chance to go to college, leaving high school during the Great Depression to help support his struggling family. He went from selling encyclopedias door to door, to leading a band, to being a runner on the floor of the Toronto Stock Exchange, to working as a salesman, to managing radio stations.

Cooke kept working his way up, becoming a part-owner of radio stations, newspapers and a magazine, and then buying a minor league baseball team in Toronto and other businesses. He immigrated to the United States in 1960 and became an even more successful businessman and owner of sports teams, including the Los Angeles Lakers, the Los Angeles Kings and the Washington Redskins.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which I now head as executive director, has awarded $175 million in scholarships to more than 2,300 high-achieving, low-income students from 8th grade through graduate school, along with comprehensive counseling and other support services. The foundation has also provided over $97 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.

Every year, the Cooke Foundation finds absolutely brilliant students who have overcome incredible obstacles and gives them scholarships. Some of our Cooke Scholars have been homeless, have gone hungry, have been undocumented, have suffered from serious illnesses, have been kicked out of their homes after announcing they were LGBT, have been teenage parents, and have faced other big challenges.

Yet Cooke Scholars have graduated with distinction from some of the top colleges and universities in the world. Some have become physicians, created nonprofit organizations to help others in need, become medical researchers working to prevent and cure diseases, launched successful businesses, become professors, started charter schools, written books, and taken on many other important rules. How sad it would have been if they never had the chance to get a college education and instead spent their lives in dead-end jobs.

Yet a stereotype persists that – to put it crudely – poor kids are dumb. Our Cooke Scholars prove every day that this is nonsense. They are some of the smartest and most capable people on our planet. All they needed was a helping hand and financial aid to succeed.

What’s lacking isn’t brainpower among those with low incomes. What’s lacking is the opportunity to get a higher education and the money to pay for it.

But we should be embarrassed that millions of low-income young people who do these things and are enormously talented hit a cash ceiling when they try to better themselves with a college degree. They should not be denied equal educational opportunity simply because they were born into families of modest means. If given the chance, they can make our nation proud.

Harold O. Levy, is executive director of Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides scholarships to exceptionally high-achieving students who have financial need, was New York City schools chancellor in 2000-02.