A White House Summit on College Opportunity

By Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

This morning, the President and First Lady spoke at the White House Summit on College Opportunity. This was their bully pulpit push to expand postsecondary opportunity, especially to low-income and first-generation students.

First Lady Michele Obama spoke about the “limitless capacity” that lies in our young people and reminded us that education is a two-way bargain, where we have a stake in what happens to our youth, but ultimately each student has to set their own goals and pursue opportunities that we can help present to them.

The good news is that the messages from both the President and First Lady focused on college writ large, and not just about the Ivy League schools that they attended. They spoke about community colleges and trade schools. The First Lady spoke about the need to ensure that there are people and resources to assist with choosing the “right-fit” college and fill out the correct forms for admissions and financial aid.

The White House presented a document of 100 schools and organizations who have committed to doing more for students who traditionally have not had college opportunity. While the list is impressive, it is finite. It has some big names, but not real big actions. Many of the items noted are perennial discussions in states and at universities. We are always working on most of these things, but make such little progress.

I believe in the message from the White House, the President, and First Lady. I have argued much of the same for much of my career. And while it is always good to use the bully pulpit to push states and colleges toward doing better, it falls greatly short of what is required to change the trajectory of our youth. The challenges are many, including:

  • College Preparation. Students, especially disadvantaged students, are much less prepared for college than others. The data is unequivocal, consistent, and heartbreaking. The White House spoke of Gear Up and Upward Bound and other programs that currently help youth. But these programs serve less than 10 percent of at-risk youth in the US, and the evidence of their success is still vague, at best. Because of growing up in the wrong school districts with the wrong teachers and the wrong support systems, too many of our students end up unprepared or underprepared for college. Of course, some of these students do go to college, and some of them are successful. For others, they really should not be there because they can’t handle the rigor of college. So they end up in…
  • Remedial Education. Those students who are admitted to college and not prepared often end up in remedial programs. And sometimes they end up in 2, 3, or more remedial classes at any given time, costing them time and money. In the end, we know from research that students that two or more remedial courses succeed at extremely low rates compared to their peers. Think single digit graduation rates. In their briefing document, The White House noted 20 colleges, 23 states, and 10 organizations that are working on new strategies for remedial education. In the end, you can’t fix 13 years of bad education in a remedial course. Of course, one of the largest barriers to college is…
  • College Costs. The residential cost of attending a public four-year institution in the US averages almost $100,000 for four years. Even loaded up with Pell and other grant opportunities, the cost is enormous for most Americans, let alone low-income students. With the average student graduating with debt of $29,000 or more, it is a huge burden on youth who….
  • Cannot Find a Job. A higher percentage of college graduates are either having a touch time finding a job or finding a job that has anything to do with their college degree. More students are going into loan deferments because they do not have the income to pay their education-related loans. Part of the problem of this is that…
  • We Have Promised Students the ROI of a Dream that Barely Exists. We state how much more college graduates earn than non-graduates, but the number of jobs for graduates keeps plummeting, and not just because of the current economy. This has been a trend for a number of decades. We have watered down jobs such that BAs are now doing jobs that previous eras had high school graduates doing. There is such little connection between college and the workforce, with the exception of certain professional degrees, that students often graduate and have no clue what they are going to do for a living, let alone a career. Even lawyers are having trouble finding jobs that can pay their remarkably high financial burden, even at lower-level law schools.

The First Lady is correct saying that we all have to step up to help these students. And I think we should focus on helping our most needy students, because the American Dream should not be about the top one percent. It is about helping everyone.

But we need to get real about the barriers our youth face. Let’s be real about what college is what it is not. Let’s not pretend that college is the answer to all our societal woes, because it clearly is not. Let’s step it up to ensure that all our youth have the opportunity for a world-class education. Right now many students don’t. Let’s talk more about career opportunities than the importance of getting traditional degrees from higher education. Let’s talk more about badges and certifications and other short-term educational opportunities that can more immediately help a much larger swath of our youth, let alone our adult population.

And if the states and institutions really want to pledge themselves to change, let’s see it in policy, not in promise. Otherwise, it’s all chit chat. Until the next summit.



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