Increasing College Success: Experts offer Mrs. Obama an Agenda

December 5, 2013

See Part 2 of the responses: First Gens on Mrs. Obama’s New College Push >>

“Increasing college access and success includes early and frequent investments. Initiatives should extend to serve students in elementary and middle schools."

After First Lady Michelle Obama addressed a group of high school students in Washington last month, encouraging them to think of themselves as college material, we asked a group of experts what they’d like to see on the First Lady’s education agenda. Our panel pointed out the advantages of having a highly-visible role model and made some valuable suggestions for how Mrs. Obama could sharpen her policy focus.

“Increasing college access and success … includes early and frequent investments,” said Wendy Blackmore, senior director of external affairs for the Tennessee College Access and Success Network. “Initiatives should extend to serve students in elementary and middle schools.

A range of standards – not just academic performance -- would help schools and community groups  to identify the students who are really on a path to postsecondary success, she said. Using such a framework, “would create opportunities for earlier and more frequent investments and interventions.”

Certainly, focusing on pre-college preparation is critical. As noted by Peg Tyre, director of strategy for the Edwin Gould Foundation, which works to close the achievement gap, Mrs. Obama needs to find ways to “help low-income children learn to advance their thinking by teaching them to write about the subjects they are learning in school -- literature, history, science, civics and math.”

Tyre, author of “The Good School,” pointed out that the goal should be to “produce more college-ready high school graduates instead of 18-year-olds who do not speak well, do not listen acutely and cannot express themselves in writing with precision and clarity.” While students who are ill-prepared may go on from high school to college, she said, “they will not thrive there because they have not been given what middle-class kids have been given -- the academic skills they need to do college level work.”

How to foster this preparation? Nicole Edmondson, director of the Northumberland Regional Center of Luzerne County Community College in Shamokin, Pa., suggested involving community colleges:

“Maybe her agenda could include helping community colleges … fund the pathways students need to take in order to reach … college-read[iness] through remediation, and then proceed to successful college careers.” She went on to say, however, that “the compromise a student makes when engaging in this process is increased time in school and increased cost in order to pay for the additional courses.”

Part of preparing first-generation students is giving them access to talented and deeply informed guidance counselors, a luxury not available to all. “College access programs … have proven that access to a trained college counselor can have a dramatic impact on the college-going rates of a high school,” Blackmore told us.

“The barriers to college access and success for low-income, first-generation students are social, cultural, historical, and financial,” she said. “The process of increasing student aspiration and awareness is developmental. The search, selection, enrollment, and matriculation processes are part technical and part art form. The financial aid process involves planning, timely communication, unique relationships with families and institutions, and advocacy.”

“For all of these reasons,” she continued, “college counseling must be understood as a profession with unique tools, strategies and knowledge. While it involves school counselors, teachers, and the academic community at large, effective college counseling demands the focused attention and individualized support provided by a dedicated and focused college counselor.”

Several experts discussed the financial challenges that come with college. Ben Peck, a senior legislative and policy associate at the public policy organization Demos, had a basic prescription for simplifying the daunting financial aid application system: "Abolish FAFSA [the Free Application for Federal Student Aid] and replace it with 1) family income, 2) family size, 3) declaration that family assets not be above $x” – a predetermined amount.

Ashley England, a student success advocate at Oasis College Connection in Nashville, recommended “automatically connecting student and parent data from the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, with only certain students with more complicated situations required to input more information.”

The federal government could “also consolidate loan and grant programs to eliminate confusion and make repayment automatically based on income levels,” England said.

Students may also need help managing the aid they get. Blackmore hoped Mrs. Obama would “explore financial aid ‘control’ options that ensure resources above and beyond direct costs are distributed in installments rather than in a lump sum. Receiving all aid, especially loans, upfront often results in students spending the needed funds on non-higher education and non-basic living expenses. [That] leaves many students unable to cover … needs that arise later in the academic year, resulting in drop outs or further debt.”

And students are the only ones who need financial help. England pointed out that “community colleges that enroll overwhelmingly low-income students do not get any more funding than others. Economic strains on community colleges have forced many to cut student support services and rely on part-time faculty for instruction. We can look to our K-12 system [as a model] for a promising alternative: offset local inequalities in spending by providing the most help to schools with the greatest challenges.”

Ron and Rodney Lewis, who are writing a book on first-gen determination, also hoped that Mrs. Obama would address the root causes of poverty.

Demographic shifts have“not changed the poverty rates or upgraded the schools that serve these communities,” the brothers noted. “We are finding an increasing number of first-gen high school and college students seeking part-time and/or full-time employment to add to the household income. Though assisting the family is noble, this additional commitment can shift their focus from long-term education to short-term employment.”

Finally, Catharine Hill, the president of Vassar College, hoped that Mrs. Obama would take her message to the universities, not just the students. “I would hope that the First Lady could encourage the colleges and universities with the best track records at graduating students on time to matriculate as many low-income and first-generation students as possible.”

Now that our panel has weighed in, what do you think? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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Photo Credit: Mrs. Obama speaking at the 2012 Virginia Tech commencement. (Official White House Photo.) Used under a Creative Commons license 3.0.