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White House Report Puts Spotlight on Expanding College Opportunities

UPDATED

As part of a White House College Opportunity Summit, the Obama administration has issued a report outlining promising models to improve the chances that students from disadvantaged backgrounds will enroll in and complete college.

The 47-page report is accompanied by a 90-page list of commitments made by participants attending the college summit in Washington. The detailed list includes several colleges agreeing to expand recruiting and scholarships for low-income students, and nonprofits outlining efforts to increase their services for access and success in college.

"Each year, hundreds of thousands of low-income students face barriers to college access and success," the report says. "Low-income students often lack the guidance and support they need to prepare for college, apply to the best-fit schools, apply for financial aid, enroll and persist in their studies, and ultimately graduate. As a result, large gaps remain in educational achievement between students from low-income families and their high-income peers."

To address these problems, the Obama administration identified four categories of barriers and possible interventions.

1. Connecting more low-income students to colleges that are the best fit and have supports in place. The issue of under-matching has been highlighted recently by researchers, and is one that been linked to lack of awareness of college options. The report highlights ways to bridge the information gaps, such as the Expanding Education Opportunities project, which mails college materials to high-achieving, low-income students; text message reminders to high school students after graduation and before college; and mentoring programs.

2.  Increasing the pool of students preparing for college. This speaks to the need for early-intervention programs that include tutoring, college visits, summer enrichment programs, and scholarship.

3. Reducing inequalities in college advising and test preparation. The report points to promising work of the Possee Foundation, the National College Advising Corps, and College Possible to provide supplemental counseling outside of school to help in the college-application and financial-aid processes.

4. Seeking breakthroughs in remediation. The administration underscores the fact that far too many students arrive at college unprepared. It highlights the work of community colleges to revise placement practices, California's efforts at early assessment of college skills in high school, and pilot programs for reforming math remediation in community college.

In the list of commitments, schools and organizations included a range of goals to support the administration's agenda. Among the pledges:

  • College Spring, a San Francisco-area nonprofit, pledged to double the number of students it serves through its SAT prep program and encourage more low-income students to take the college entrance exam. 
  • The College Board announced that every income-eligible student who takes the SAT would receive four free fee waivers to apply for college. 
  • Wilkes University in Pennsylvania committed to launch the first ever Founders' Gala this spring to raise funds to help financially needy, first-generation students complete college.
  • The Virginia Community College System will develop strategies to ensure that first-time college-going students (with an emphasis on students from low-income and underrepresented populations) receive career counseling and academic advising prior to their initial college enrollment.
  • The University System of Maryland plans to expand its Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success program, which identifies low-income students with college potential in 10th grade, providing academic coaching and support through high school to community colleges and a four-year degree.

At the White House today, Michelle Obama said she would be focusing her effort on talking directly with young people about their future.

"I'm going to be conveying the simple truth—I'm going to tell them that they have everything they need to succeed already. It's all in there, but they still have to be committed to getting their educations," said Mrs. Obama in a transcript of her speech. "I want these young people to understand that their struggles can actually be a source of strength and even a source of pride, because they've overcome obstacles and learned skills that many of us will never have, that many of us need to actually get the real work done. I tell my kids, you can't always teach resilience. It's the life you live that gets you there. And these kids have lived some lives."

UPDATE (5:45 p.m.)

I spoke by phone with Ron Thomas, the president of the University of Puget Sound, about the summit. He said attending the event was both informative and inspiring. Thomas was issued an invitation in November, but to secure his spot at the White House event his university was required to make a commitment to help low-income students.

"I thought that was a good idea. It demonstrated seriousness about action, rather than just another colloquium," he told me. 

Puget Sound plans to offer four to 10 full-ride university scholarships for disadvantaged students who attend its summer program, which is offered to disadvantaged students from local Tacoma junior and senior high schools. Nearly all students who participate go on to college, but few chose Puget Sound—an example of under-matching that Thomas said needs to be addressed. "It's an issue of American competitiveness in the world and economic mobility," he said. "This seems to be a non-partisan issue. We have the opportunity and obligation to make sure something does happen." 

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