Momentum for immigration reform has dwindled and the healthcare rollout has been plagued by technical issues, but the White House on Wednesday highlighted one initiative it hopes will gather steam in the coming months: expanding access to higher education.
Around 250 college chancellors and higher education leaders packed a White House summit where both President Barack Obama and the first lady called on colleges and advocacy organizations to help more low-income students go to college.
The Obama administration has said it would like the United States to lead the nation in college graduates by 2020. Right now, about a dozen countries rank ahead of the U.S. when it comes to graduates. In order to change that, the increasingly diverse nation needs more minority and low-income kids to not only attend college, but graduate.
President Obama said during remarks on Wednesday that a degree is also the best way to achieve social mobility, but that moving up has become more and more of a challenge in recent years.
Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council and one of the officials who spearheaded the summit, echoed that message on a conference call with reporters Tuesday evening.
”We do not have a more clear ladder of economic mobility than the attainment of a college degree for someone born into a low-income family,” he said.
Both the president and first lady vowed to focus on the issue in the coming months.
“That’s what I want to spend my time doing,” Michelle Obama said of helping more low-income kids reach college.
The president made clear that he doesn’t plan to wait around for a gridlocked Congress to take action, either. He plans to work with lawmakers “where I can,” he said, but that he’s “got a pen” he can use to take executive action and a phone “to rally” colleges and organizations around the country.
2014 will be a year of action, he added, pointing out that more than 100 colleges and 40 organizations have already answered the White House’s call to commit to educating more low-income students and that “we didn’t pass a bill to do it.”
Around a third of low-income kids enroll in some form of higher education right after high school, he pointed out, but fewer than 10 percent earn a bachelors degree by the time they reach their mid-20s.
Those statistics might sound discouraging but recent research has provided some insight into why the numbers are so low and, even better, steps that might help raise them.
Research from people like Stanford University professor Caroline Hoxby shows that colleges are doing a poor job of connecting with high-achieving poor students, but that those students exist and respond positively when colleges do reach out.
Such students don’t always apply to schools that match their abilities or desires. They often apply to local schools because they think it may be the only option. If they received an invitation to visit from a school further afield, however, or an application fee waiver, they might be encouraged to apply.
“Summer melt,” Sperling said, a phenomenon in which kids who have been admitted to and accepted a place at a college don’t make it to the first day of class, is also an issue for low-income kids. Some may not have help navigating the process and an orientation targeted at at-risk kids or extra guidance on registering for classes might alleviate some of that “melt.”
To attend the summit, colleges had to commit to a specific plan to try to help more low-income kids succeed.
Oregon Tech, for example, will test out a text message system aimed at connecting students with advisors. Minnesota will offer financial literacy courses. The University of California system, led by former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who sat in the front row during the president’s and first lady’s remarks on Wednesday, will work to develop a stronger and clearer link between community colleges, where many low-income students initially enroll, and the universities she oversees.
Both the president and first lady emphasized, though, that some of the onus of attaining a degree falls on students.
“Education is a two-way bargain,” Michelle Obama said, adding that educators, mentors and parents need to talk “with” kids, not just at or about them.
The first lady, as she has done previously, brought up her personal history as a first-generation college student and said she was one of the students who never would have found her way to a school like Princeton if her brother hadn’t been recruited to play basketball there.
Colleges are “missing out on so much potential” by not reaching out to low-income and underserved student demographics, she said.
She praised schools for stepping up to help with things like mental health services and counseling for eating disorders, and said now is the time to “step up” to help low-income students navigate the challenges, like application fees and a lack of familiarity with the college process, that can prevent them from earning a college degree.
She pointed out that such steps will pay off for schools in the long-run because students who succeed will support, financially and in other ways, their alma maters. They may also serve as bridges between underserved student communities and the colleges trying to reach them.
President Obama pointed out that his own daughters and other kids at schools with significant resources and from backgrounds where parents are familiar with the college application process, receive more advice on things like test prep than their low-income peers and that it “tilts the playing field.”
“We call these standardized,” he said of tests like the ACT and SAT, but “they’re not standardized.”
“I barely remembered to bring a pencil,” he quipped of his own test-taking experience.
Whether the colleges actually deliver on their promise to reach out to and connect with more low-income kids remains to be seen. As Sperling said during the call with reporters, the summit was a “launch” not a “destination.”
Sperling said it’s difficult to quantify a dollar amount that colleges have committed, but said he expects well over 100,000 young people to be positively impacted. Both he and the president said they plan to convene higher education leaders in the coming year for another similar summit.
“It doesn’t matter where you start,” the president said. “It matters where you end up.”
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.