Because less than half of low-income high school students apply to college, President Obama last week asked the first lady, Michelle Obama, to lead a national initiative aimed at increasing college access for low-income students. Over 40 non-profit organizations and 140 college presidents and chancellors, as well as corporate leaders, gathered at the White House, to discuss ways in which colleges, in particular the more prestigious ones, can work towards admitting more students from low-income families.
I see this event as a deliberate attempt by the president to highlight his election pledge to narrow the gap between rich and poor, something he is expected to address during his State of the Union address on January 28. Obama did, however, sound genuine in his introduction stating, “We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that’s at the heart of America, to that end, young people, low-income students in particular, must have access to a college education."
Michelle Obama, reciting her own experiences entering higher education at Princeton and the difficulties she encountered, made the event seem more real and relevant. She admitted to feeling scared and intimidated by the whole college process and distinctly remembered receiving little or no support applying to colleges. The experiences she describes are totally alien to the students experiences here at SAAS where we have a dedicated team of high school advisors available every day of the week to patiently answer our questions, listen to our concerns, and basically help prevent us having four mental breakdowns a week! I am alarmed by the fact that many high school college advisors are more invested in dealing with gang issues and truancy than taking time to discuss college applications with their students. This only encourages these students to apply to the colleges they are familiar with - a wasted opportunity, in my mind.
Hopefully with the members’ pledge of over $100 million to focus attention on exploring how to match low-income students with more prestigious colleges, expand mentoring services to ensure students are better academically prepared, and increase the resources made available to school college counselors, the number of underprivileged students applying to college will begin to increase.
However, one important topic that I would like to have seen addressed at the summit was the issue of the skyrocketing cost of higher education. Statistics from The College Board show that tuition and fees are up 27 percent at public four-year colleges and private college costs have grown 14 percent in the last five years. Tuition costs and student debt represents yet another barrier for underprivileged students gaining access to a college degree.