Tell Us: How Should Michelle Obama Influence College Success?

Michelle Obama
PolicyShop (Demos)
Jennifer Wheary
November 19, 2013

Michelle Obama made a heavily scrutinized splash on Nov. 12, 2013, when she spoke to sophomores at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, DC about her college experience. Fueled by a White House announcement that Mrs. Obama will focus more in the coming year on improving the college completion rate of low-income students, the event raised speculation that the First Lady is ready to take a larger role in influencing national education policy.


What specific agenda items should Michelle
Obama push as part
of this new focus?

Let us know

As a school that is more than 95 percent non-white, and that has 85 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, Bell was an appropriate choice for Mrs. Obama to open a national conversation about improving college attainment for minority and poor students. The question is how deeply and effectively she will engage with the issues.

A first-generation college graduate from a working class family who attended Princeton and Harvard, Mrs. Obama filled Bell students with inspiration. She talked of overcoming obstacles, of her hour-long bus ride across town to attend a good high school, and of her difficultly adjusting to Princeton – an experience she said was akin to “landing on another planet.” She spoke of the rewards that await those who persevere in their education. “My story can be your story,” she promised students.

Mrs. Obama was motivational to the core. She spoke with genuine conviction about the importance of self-determination. “The person with the biggest impact on your education is you," she said to her audience. The First Lady told Bell students that their struggles “are not weaknesses.” Coming from a tough neighborhood or having a parent who has lost a job, she said, “can teach you all kinds of things you can never learn in a classroom.”

That statement is valid, but it is also problematic and shortsighted if Mrs. Obama truly wants to catalyze a national conversation about increasing college completion among low-income students.

While determination, street smarts, and the other abilities low-income students develop from their daily struggles count for a lot, when it comes to succeeding in college, solid academic skills also matter greatly. For all they may be learning outside of the classroom, low-income students are not getting what they need in school, and it costs them greatly.

A recent report by the College Board shows that nationally only 26 percent of graduating high school seniors meet the basic benchmark for college readiness in English, math, science, and reading. The basic benchmark measured by the College Board is not a high bar.  It is whether or not students have the requisite knowledge to pull a C-average in college courses in each of these subjects. 

That just 1 in 4 of all high school graduates know the bare minimum they need to pass college courses in fundamental topics should embarrass us. However, the statistics for students who are most likely to be low-income should make us angry. 

While college readiness stands at 26 percent nationally, it is just 9 percent for high school graduates whose parents have not gone to college.  It is 14 percent for Latino students, and 5 percent for African American students. 

The extremely low rate of college readiness among first generation, low-income, and minority students is not random. It is the direct result of the underfunded, low-quality schools these students attend.  This systemic disparity is a real obstacle to improving college attainment among this group. Lack of college readiness is one of the main reasons that the college attendance and completion rates of low-income, first generation and minority students lag far behind their peers.

Mrs. Obama’s interest in first-generation and low-income students is sincere and informed by personal experience. She should share her story and her compassion widely. Her outreach to individual groups can and will change the lives of many of the students she meets.

But she has a larger platform and greater opportunity here. 

The First Lady can use her prominence to draw attention to practices and policies that will positively affect the success of first generation, low-income students long-term. These include attacking disparities in school funding, addressing dramatic differences in the quality of curricula and teachers, supporting afterschool and summer bridge programs that enhance the academic skills of low-income students, and calling on the smartest minds in the country to develop creative ideas to improve college readiness across the board.
Mrs. Obama is a street-smart Princeton and Harvard graduate. She is more than capable of successfully parlaying her personal passion into political will. If she chooses to take this task upon herself, it could be her lasting legacy.

Read some of the responses so far from experts and first-gen graduates here and here.

Jennifer Wheary
Jennifer Wheary  is a senior fellow at Demos, a national policy organization, and the co-founder of First to Finish College project. She is a first generation college graduate with a B.S. from Cornell University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

This article was originally published on PolicyShop, the blog of Demos, and is reprinted here with permission.

Photo: flickr/USDAgov

Share this SparkAction Link: click here to shorten

  nike shoes washington wizards jersey falcons jerseys ray-ban sunglasses jerseys from china oakley canada celine bags jerseys from china instyler ionic styler valentino outlet polo ralph christian louboutin tommy hilfiger online browns jerseys nike roshe hermes stephen curry shoes coach store under armour shoes rayban coach factory outlet soccer shoes outlet baseball jerseys nike air max giuseppe shoes mcm bags ray ban outlet air yeezy shoes nike roshe lakers jerseys new balance canada coach outlet canada nike roshe prada sunglasses ralph lauren coach outlet online oakley sungalsses outlet pandora canada true religion jeans lacoste shoes philipp plein outlet omega watches michael kors outlet ray ban sunglasses outlet marc by marc jacobs chi flat iron jordans oakley frogskins salomon schuhe adidas online montre homme oklahoma city thunder jersey cheap ray ban nike tn oakley outlet houston rockets jerseys nike air max nike mercurial vapor fivefingers michael kors outlet online sale air jordan retro asics michael kors vans outlet hollister clothing store michael kors taschen patriots jerseys michael kors outlet online bottega veneta ray ban zonnebril raiders jerseys roshe run nike air max jets jerseys barbour outlet beats by dre tommy hilfiger ralph lauren polo prada shoes azcardinals jerseys vikings jerseys michael kors chi hair oakley sunglasses cheap beats headphones colts jerseys soccer shoes pandora bracelet fendi handbags nike shoes barbour jackets louboutin shoes nike free 5.0 tory burch outlet steelers jerseys north face backpacks boots on sale los angeles clippers jersey omega watches coach purses outlet online michael kors bags dsquared2 sale 49ers jerseys brooklyn nets jerseys swarovski burberry outlet online adidas kate spade handbags longchamp handbags mizuno wave polo outlet store oakley sunglasses michael kors bags nike free run san antonio spurs jerseys swarovski jewelry oakley sunglasses outlet nike store minnesota timberwolves jersey dallas mavericks jerseys longchamp outlet wholesale clothing the north face outlet polo ralph lauren bcbg max michael jordan nike shop replica watches coach outlet ray ban outlet vans shoes boston celtics jersey marc by marc jacobs oakley vault ray ban wayfarer chicago bulls jersey ralph lauren outlet air max 2015 lunette ray ban tracksuits store burberry handbags watches canada north face oakley vault toronto raptors jersey pandora huarache jimmy choo outlet armani outlet bills jerseys mont blanc plein shoes nike air max thea cheap oakley broncos jerseys celine outlet adidas superstar givenchy outlet the north face rolex watch mcm backpack outlet ray bans outlet hollister kids dsquared2 abercrombie air max tommy hilfiger outlet stores nike schoenen burberry michael kors outlet online sale polo ralph michael kors outlet swarovski online mcm backpack hollisterco air jordan shoes hogan outlet ferragamo shoes hilfiger online shop hermes bags lunette ray ban glasses frames hoodies knockoff handbags nike schuhe ray ban jordan release dates 2015 the north face charlotte hornets jerseys coach black friday reloj ray ban sunglasses ray ban outlet louboutin true religion outlet coach outlet portland trail blazers jersey northface cheap basketball shoes mcm handbags hollister clothing pandora charms nike air max shoes burberry outlet online michael kors outlet online sale memphis grizzlies jersey babyliss pro the north face coach outlet online ecco outlet asics gel timberland boots baseball bats thomas sabo uk giuseppe zanotti sneakers hermes belt nfl jerseys air max baseball jerseys juicy couture outlet coach outlet online michael kors new balance nike huarache coach factory shop new balance fidget spinner outlet pandora north face jackets veneta cheap michael kors nike air max ralph lauren outlet online iphone 5s cases michael kors cheap nfl jerseys mcm backpack burberry outlet north face outlet rolex watches adidas online adidas superstar air max schoenen ralph lauren polos burberry sale jimmy choo shoes coach outlet online louboutin shoes lions jerseys longchamp taschen coach outlet store online utah jazz jersey cheap true religion seahawks jerseys roshe run zapatillas nike roshe run rolex watches for sale free running gafas oakley converse chucks philadelphia 76ers jerseys ravens jerseys polo ralph lauren outlet nba jerseys dre beats purses and handbags replica watches cheap oakley levis jeans fossil uhren michael kors coach factory coach outlet online longchamp outlet texans jerseys coach factory outlet hogan true religion tommy hilfiger coach factory hollister kids katespade puma outlet swarovski australia michael kors outlet online burberry outlet online nike air max 90 ralph lauren cheap michael kors calvin klein underwear ray ban sonnenbrillen wedding dresses indoor soccer shoes jaguars jerseys atlanta hawks jerseys chrome hearts michael kors canada oakley salvatore ferragamo long champ orlando magic jersey rams jerseys nike air force nike air jordan cheap oakley sunglasses handbags outlet barbour jackets outlet true religion jeans outlet new balance iphone case coach outlet online tommy hilfiger outlet bcbg max azria ed hardy clothing burberry outlet store new balance outlet adidas canada buccaneers jerseys nike outlet jordan retro michael kors bags red bottoms softball bats glasses online hollister online michael kors outlet barbour factory rayban phoenix suns jersey new york knicks packers jerseys thomas sabo adidas superstar longchamp outlet ray bans nike free 5.0 timberland outlet michael kors ferragamo eagles jerseys ralph lauren outlet swarovski crystal swarovski jewelry barbour outlet ralph lauren outlet giants jerseys ralph lauren nfl jerseys longchamp ralph lauren outlet air jordan ralph lauren outlet converse outlet chiefs jerseys ralph lauren oakley sunglasses outlet juicy couture handbags michael kors uk michael kors outlet online sale reebok jerseys from china prada supra footwear hugo boss shop cleveland cavaliers michael kors nike shoes outlet redskins jerseys woolrich outlet saints jerseys michael kors purses bears jerseys long champ prada outlet rolex ralph lauren factory store golden state warriors jersey bengals jerseys kate spade outlet online new orleans pelicans jersey true religion jeans women christian louboutin shoes panthers jerseys supra footwear baseball jerseys timberland femme nike air max burberry outlet converse sneakers burberry online shop indiana pacers jersey versace outlet online burberry sale michael kors outlet milwaukee bucks jersey red bottom shoes titans jerseys ralph lauren outlet ray ban wayfarer sacramento kings jersey heat jerseys air huarache michael kors v?skor pandora schmuck michael kors canada nike outlet air max christian louboutin shoes dolphins jerseys nike shoes oakley sunglasses detroit pistons denver nuggets jerseys nike free 5.0 hogan outlet ray ban occhiali beats by dr dre north face burberry sale oakley converse shoes vans schuhe jerseys from china oakley outlet air max shoes ray bans nike shoes burberry outlet air max oakley sunglasses katespade timberland shoes chargers jerseys purses and handbags polo ralph lauren outlet online burberry outlet ferragamo shoes ralph lauren outlet online oakley puma online mbt shoes outlet prada outlet cowboys jerseys michael kors handbags

July 22 at 02:36am

Catharine Hill, President of Vassar, has written a lot about this and is very active in pushing small liberal arts schools (who typically have high graduation rates) to do more to recruit first gens..

December 3 at 01:10pm

On the surface "getting your feet wet" seems like a good approach. But most students who start community college do not finish any kind of certificate or degree. Community colleges are the sites of many great success stories, either as stepping stones to 4-year schools or as providing credentials that lead to better jobs. However, community colleges are also badly underfunded and often struggle to provide the services and resources that are more likely to support first-gen student success.

December 3 at 01:08pm

Very interesting point, especially given the increased push to get first gens more access to college-related information. Which companies profit most from abusing first-gen student privacy?

December 3 at 01:05pm

This is a good observation and relates to another important point affecting the marketability and career decisions first gens face. Most are negotiating uncharted territory when pursuing internships (if they are able to pursue them, since most are unpaid), seeking jobs, and generally building a career. Are there any colleges or programs that are particularly good at providing resources for first gens when it comes to career advice?

December 3 at 01:03pm

Channels to get students into majors in industries that are hiring and have room to move up the chain to big jobs, big salaries. Low-income students don't by majority end up in highest-growth areas so encourage them to do it and go farther. Not right for all, but lower-pay professions aren't a great default and we tend toward them. Guidance so we don't end up with more debt than we have marketable degrees.

December 2 at 12:40pm

Most college and scholarship search sites profit through lead generation. Student data collected by the companies that run the sites is sold to colleges and third party marketers, making the journey to college more challenging for young people. First generation students and those with little access to school counselors are particularly vulnerable to the onslaught of marketing materials that arrives shortly after they take the PSAT or conduct an online college search. What's troubling is that the practice is so deceptive; privacy policies refer to 'sharing' this information and typically, using any single feature of a site constitutes opting in. A number of recent articles and pending lawsuits have exposed this longstanding practice and the harm that it can cause to a student's admissions and financial aid opportunities. Students need to have access to tools that protect their college search footprint, and we must insist on transparency when companies plan to sell user data. Mrs. Obama, please make student data protection part of the agenda to increase college access and attainment.

November 27 at 05:35pm

I think encouraging people to take "small bites" at first is a good process. A 2 year commitment to their local, and probably more affordable Community College might be easier for some students in beginning their educational journey. Many students can not see 4 years ahead, but can more readily commit to 2 years. If they are successful, then they are empowered to move forward to complete their 4 year degree. The smaller time increment is more manageable for many, and if they enroll in a program that is preparing them for a career---if they do not continue to a 4 yr program--at least they are prepared for a better job.

November 25 at 09:56am

As students move through the college search, they are too often viewed as 'leads' to be sold to anyone who wants to buy a list of college bound teenagers. Most online college and scholarship search sites are guilty of this, even those run by non-profits. Privacy policies indicate that their information will be shared, but in reality this data is sold to colleges and third party marketers. Colleges use this information to make enrollment and aid decisions, or to market to students who are not a fit, and the excessive advertising makes many students want to shut down their email accounts. Mrs. Obama could help low income and first generation students by pushing government to forbid the misleading language that lead generators use in their privacy policy, and by shining a spotlight on this practice.

November 22 at 12:49pm

Agreed that college readiness is critical, but there is also lower hanging fruit when it comes to boosting college completion rates among first-generation and/or low-income students. We know that colleges and universities that are more competitive have higher college completion rates. (Indeed, a closer look at college completion rates among less competitive schools paints a dismal picture that should give us pause.) These schools also typically have more funds, resources, and tools to address the social and academic issues first-gen students face.

The travesty here is that low-income/first-gen students are not applying to the competitive schools they are QUALIFIED to get into. Instead, they're applying to schools they believe are cheaper (they're not) and that typically have a far lower graduation rate. This is a tragic waste. If we're talking high impact for comparatively little effort--start here.

November 21 at 02:43pm

College has got to be made more affordable; and graduates should not have to go into debt for years, in order to attend college. Our young people are being priced out of attending higher education. And, we are sacrificing our future, as well as theirs. Income inequality of their parents MUST be addressed.

November 21 at 01:12am

Out-of-school time can and should be used to close the achievement gap for low-income students so that they are academically prepared to succeed in college. Our academic program prepares low-income public high school students for admission to the nation’s most competitive colleges—and supports them through college graduation. After attending our rigorous Saturday Academy plus our month-long Summer Academy and weekly after-school classes, our Scholars match the SAT scores of all college-bound seniors nationally. All Scholars are accepted to four-year colleges and 95% graduate within 6 years (compared to 54% of all college students who graduate in 6 years nationally). Learn more about our solution at

November 20 at 05:36pm

Expanding resources for youth from foster care - including supportive adults as mentors to help them problem solve and keep them motivated.

November 20 at 11:17am

Cultivating discussions and writing about values, goals, aspirations, and hopes -- and not just grit and determination. Stoking the inner fires of purpose, not just vocational access and job possibilities or "escape" from circumstances -- especially when that's where the people you love are.

November 20 at 07:14am

Q. What would you like to see Michelle Obama do with this new focus? What are one or two specific agenda items you’d love to see her push?

November 19 at 11:10am


receive our updates

Spark Tweets