Obamas Urge Colleges and Students to Step Up on Access and Success

January 16, 2014

President Obama and his wife, Michelle, appeared together on Thursday to exhort college leaders to do more to recruit and retain low-income students, saying the nation suffers when capable young people fail to graduate.

"Right now, we're missing out on so much potential because so many promising young people simply don't believe that college can be a reality for them," Ms. Obama told the 140 college presidents, business people, foundation leaders, and nonprofit executives assembled for the White House summit on college access. "It's our job to help them understand their potential and then get them enrolled in a college that can help them meet their needs."

The president agreed. "There is this huge cohort of talent that we're not tapping," he said. He called the more than 100 "commitments" to college access that attendees announced on Thursday morning "an extraordinary first step," but he said more colleges, businesses, foundations, and nonprofit groups must step up if the nation is to close the college-completion gap between wealthy and low-income students.

Both the president and the first lady also put some of the onus on students themselves, saying low-income people must take responsibility for their academic careers.

"We must remember that education is a two-way bargain," Ms. Obama said. "While there is so much more we must do for our kids, at the end of the day, the person who has the most say over whether or not a student succeeds is the student him or herself."

As an example, she cited Troy Simon, a Bard College student who grew up poor in New Orleans and didn't learn to read or write until he was 14. Mr. Simon, who lived for a while in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina and tap-danced in the French Quarter to make money, said he could "offer a portfolio of excuses for why I fell behind." But instead of accepting failure, he said he decided to become an example for his siblings and commit to catching up.

"I saw my brothers and sisters heading down the same path, and decided to change my life," he said, in remarks that introduced the first lady. He credited his success to his determination and to the help of college-preparatory groups like the Posse Foundation and Urban League College Track, both of which made commitments to expand programs on Thursday.

Overcoming Isolation

Ms. Obama, who has spoken in the past about the alienation she felt as a first-generation student at Princeton University, said she would spend the remainder of the president's term talking with low-income students.

"I want to inspire them to step up and commit to their education so they can have opportunities they've never dreamed of," she said. "That story of opportunity through education is the story of my life."

The first lady said she identified with low-income students who worry they won't succeed at a selective institution.

"The truth is that if Princeton hadn't found my brother as a basketball recruit, and if I hadn't seen that he could succeed on a campus like that, it never would have occurred to me to apply to that school—never," she said.

When she first arrived at Princeton, Ms. Obama said, "I didn't know anyone on campus except my brother. I didn't know how to pick the right classes or find the right buildings. I didn't even bring the right-size sheets for my dorm room. I didn't realize those beds were so long.

"So I was a little overwhelmed, and a little isolated," she added.

It took a three-week campus-orientation program and the campus's multicultural center to make her feel comfortable, she said.

"If it weren't for those resources and the friends and the mentors, I honestly don't know how I would have made it through college," she said. "But instead, I graduated at the top of my class, I went to law school, and you know the rest."

Helping students like her graduate from college is not just good for those students, she said, it's good for colleges.

"If you embrace and empower these students, they're going to stay engaged with your school for decades after they graduate," she said. "They will be dressed up in school colors at homecoming games. They'll be asking to serve on your committees and advisory boards. And they'll be doing their part when fund-raising season rolls around.

"Believe me," she continued, "these will be some of the best alumni you could possibly ask for."