As university students, we think about the quality of our education, which most can agree encompasses far more than professors’ standings on RateMyProfessors.com. We wonder, “Are my peers as interested in the material as I am?” We worry, “Will this course prepare me for the real world?”
Questions like these anchor us in how we perceive the quality of our education and reassure us that we can land a good job upon graduating. We spend the majority of our time in a community of 20,000—small in relation to the surrounding area—with professors who support our pursuit of knowledge and peers who challenge our ideas. As heavily as these factors influence our lives at USC, so does the state of literacy in the Midlands.
By third grade, more than a quarter of Midlands students are behind in reading. One in six children who do not read proficiently in third grade will not graduate from high school on time—a rate four times greater than that of proficient readers. Maybe, then, it won’t surprise you that the reading level of an average South Carolina inmate is below third grade.
Other issues like crime levels usually take the stage in South Carolina as the root cause of disparities and low national rank. A greater collective effort to improve the Midlands’ literacy levels would alleviate these problems and benefit us all. In a single year, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports, a one-year increase in schooling would prevent almost 100 murders, 7,000 assaults and over 300 robberies in South Carolina.
Literacy 2030, a Midlands initiative started by the nonprofit Central Carolina Community Foundation, works with local literacy providers to change the future of the Midlands’ community through a vision of 100 percent literacy by 2030. If Columbia’s population is not literate, regardless of how strong our own education is, we won’t have an employment base that supports the opportunity to work in a thriving city.
“To transform our community, we must first understand how a person living with low literacy, whom we may have never met, directly affects everyone’s quality of life,” JoAnn Turnquist, the Foundation’s CEO, says. “Collaboration across our entire community is needed to improve lives and every Midlands citizen’s future.”
In South Carolina, where poverty is rampant and, even now, we have first generation college-goers, literacy is a critical issue, one that provides USC students the opportunity to change Columbia’s future. Annie Schick, a fourth-year student who works with USC’s Teach for America chapter, recognizes that most students don’t know that they hold the power to incite such change.
“I do a lot of classroom presentations through Teach for America, and the facts that I teach have been drilled into my brain,” Annie says. “From my education, though, these truths were never presented to me. I learned to read, and going to college was always the plan. Learning became second nature. Even if you know the statistics, it’s still hard to grasp how large the Midlands’ literacy problem is.”
Supporting a low literate population hits us all where it hurts: our wallets. If current high school dropouts obtained bachelor’s degrees, the Midlands would save more than $300,000 per year in public health costs. If they were to earn high school diplomas, the $900,000 increase in yearly earnings translates to almost $7 million in additional income taxes each year.
“Those extra funds could be used to provide community services and support our education system to further improve literacy,” JoAnn says.
But literacy encompasses far more than the ability to read a book. The effort to reach a fully literate population involves computer and health literacy, vocational training, media education and cultural literacy, among other skills. Organizations across campus work to improve Columbia’s state of literacy and welcome students who want to help. Students for Education Reform (SFER) is a new organization on campus that works to close the educational gaps in our community by empowering students as stakeholders in the education system and connecting them with tools to advocate for change. Cocky’s Reading Express, which has given over 40,000 books to school-age children, and Carolina Service Council also promote literacy and provide students with dynamic avenues to contribute. Dean Charles Bierbauer of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies has been involved with Cocky’s Reading Express since its inception in 2005.
“Every student is at a different place in educational development, regardless of whether they come from a ‘good’ school or a ‘bad’ one,” Charles says. “You can address 100 kids at once in an auditorium, but you have to realize that a child’s success depends on a one-on-one relationship. I made a point of reading to my kids, and I make a point of reading with my grandchildren. When I visit, they’re excited to show me their books and read together. If we can provide one child after another with that excitement about reading, we can collectively reach hundreds, even thousands, of young people.”
Individuals’ efforts to raise literacy levels are as powerful as entire organizations, and the options for helping are endless. If you like numbers, teach elementary-age kids to budget their allowances. If you’re not so keen on working with kiddies, or technology is your thing, volunteer with Midlands organizations like Senior Resources to teach elderly citizens to use the Internet. Starting a community garden on your street to promote health literacy is another way to help. Maybe you’re musically inclined—teach kids at local homes like Epworth Children’s Home to play an instrument.
The first year of college may have been a struggle for some of us. Balancing new responsibilities and adjusting to higher academic standards is a lot to take on and can often be overwhelming. Imagine the confusion and hardship of people who have struggled their whole lives to find a foothold and learn to support themselves.
As educated community members, it is our responsibility to participate in the advancement of our fellow citizens’ literacy skills. More importantly, we must understand how devastating it would feel to lack such basic abilities.
The problem isn’t a gap in intelligence. A disparate education alone can damage a person’s pride and cause shame. Through a united community, however, we can create sustainable change in the Midlands, empower those who need to learn and improve our individual and collective futures.