Michelle Obama Can Influence Low-Income College Attainment

Michelle Obama made a heavily scrutinized splash this week when she spoke to sophomores at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, DC about her college experience. Fueled by a Whitehouse 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.

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.