Michelle Obama Takes Bigger Role in Urging Young People to Pursue College

Saul Loeb, AFP, Getty Images

Students who have faced challenges like living in a dangerous neighborhood or learning English as a second language have resilience, Michelle Obama told a White House audience on Wednesday. "If you can do all of that, then certainly you can fill out a Fafsa form."
January 16, 2014

Michelle Obama will take on an expanded role in promoting the administration's college-attainment goal during the rest of her time as first lady, she said at an event for educators and others who work with high-school students on Wednesday. That role will be "talking directly with young people," Ms. Obama said, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Ms. Obama has already started this work. Back in November, she talked about the importance of college with high-school sophomores in Washington.

Her message: Students already have what it takes to succeed, but they must make a commitment to getting an education. Students who face challenges like living in a dangerous neighborhood or learning English as a second language have resilience, Ms. Obama said at the event, which came a day before the White House holds a summit on college access.

"So what I want these kids to understand," she said, "is that if you can do all of that, then certainly you can fill out a Fafsa form," a quip about the government's notoriously onerous Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which the administration has worked to improve.

Ms. Obama spoke at a White House event for invited college students, high-school teachers and counselors, and representatives of college-access and youth organizations.

"The first lady is an incredibly exciting spokesperson for the access and success space," said Nicole Hurd, founder and chief executive officer of the National College Advising Corps, which places new college graduates in high schools to serve as college advisers. And the event, Ms. Hurd said, was "a nice complement for what's happening tomorrow."

Most of those attending Wednesday's event work with students before they begin college, while many of those scheduled to attend Thursday's summit are college presidents. A few people are going to both events.

And while Wednesday's attendees were congratulated on their efforts, some of Thursday's have already been asked to do more. As a condition of attending the summit, the presidents had to commit to taking concrete steps to, among other things, help more low-income students enroll in and complete college.

Ms. Obama's comments focused on students' responsibility for their own education. But she did add that "it's our responsibility to make sure they have programs that support them, and universities that will seek them out and give them a chance, and then prepare them and help them finish their degrees once they get in."

Before hearing Ms. Obama's remarks, attendees watched the movie The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, about two inner-city boys who must fend for themselves, before breaking into small groups for discussions facilitated by representatives of the administration.

There was a note taker at each table, said Jim McCorkell, chief executive officer of College Possible, which pairs disadvantaged high-school students with recent college graduates who help them prepare for college. While Mr. McCorkell wasn't sure what would ultimately happen to those notes, he was glad someone was listening.

"It's really important," he said, "for the first lady, the president, and this administration to hear from people who are on the ground doing the work." Still, Mr. McCorkell said, he hopes the administration's interest will be not only in talking about those issues, but in creating policies and providing money to support them.