Tell Us: How Should Michelle Obama Influence College Success?

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

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<strong> 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?</strong>

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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..

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?