President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama brought together hundreds of educators from across the country in the second White House College Opportunity Day of Action to propose federal initiatives and discuss innovations in the national education system.
Gathered in the amphitheater of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Pennsylvania Avenue, participants listened to a series of panels and speakers who discussed all aspects of the nation’s schooling with an emphasis on improving accessibility for higher education to low-income students, announcing over 600 new actions by various organizations toward this goal.
In addition to the main speakers, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Director of Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz and Director of the National Economic Council Jeff Zients addressed attendees at the event, with intermittent panels featuring educators discussing key educational issues, including immigration and graduation rates, throughout the day.
Obama’s nearly 30-minute speech highlighted the main points of the day, incorporating themes of contributing to overall economic growth, supporting college students toward graduation and increasing accessibility for low-income and first-generation high school students. He called for bipartisanship in achieving these aims.
“This should not be a Democratic issue or a Republican issue, making sure more of our young people have access to higher education and can succeed and complete their work and get their degree — that has to be an American issue,” he said.
He stressed economic stratification as a source of disunity and tension within the country, specifically pertaining to the rising cost of higher education, explaining that middle class families who receive minimal or no financial aid often feel excluded from the conversation. In addition to the education frustrations, Obama alluded to the national response to the events in Ferguson, Mo., as an example of mistrust in the current political system.
“When it comes, as we’ve seen unfortunately in recent days, to our criminal justice system, many Americans feel deep unfairness when it comes to the gap between our professed ideals and how laws are applied on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Obama stressed restoring equality to the education system as the solution to combat these divisions.
“As a nation, we don’t promise equal outcomes, but we were founded on the idea everybody should have equal opportunity to succeed, no matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, you can make it,” he said.
Economic Impacts of Higher Education
All speakers emphasized how higher education affects the nation and specifically results in a stronger economy.
Biden highlighted the 1944 GI Bill as the turning point in equalizing American education, ushering in the most educated generation of workers in the world for its time. Obama elaborated on this 20th-century success of American education, urging the participants at the summit to search for ways to bring the nation back to this glory by maintaining an emphasis on skilled, high-wage jobs filled by educated workers.
“The skills of our people, the investments we made in human capital — We were ahead of the curve,” he said. “If we make sure they remain the best educated generation in American history, there’s no limit to what they can achieve. There’s no limit to what this country can achieve.”
In light of his executive order issued Nov. 20, Obama referenced his immigration policy to attract skilled professionals to the United States, drawing extended applause from the auditorium.
“The immigration issue is, I recognize, one that generates a lot of passion, but it does not make sense for us to want to push talent out rather than to make sure that they’re staying here and contributing to society,” he said.
Supporting College Students
To reap the economic benefits of education, the day emphasized the need to support college students toward graduation. Obama pointed out that students who fail to complete their degree are left with an added burden of debt, but without the skills necessary for a higher-wage job.
“If they’re simply enrolling and not graduating, if they’re enrolling and not getting the skills that they need, then we’re not delivering on our promise,” he said.
During the first discussion of the day, panelists brainstormed initiatives to change campus culture in order to encourage students to remain enrolled.
Arizona State University President Michael Crow noted the need to pay special attention to science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors who often drop after introductory courses. He said a re-evaluation of one required physics course resulted in a 40 percent reduction in students dropping the major from fall 2012 to spring 2013.
Increasing College Accessibility
The final broad theme of the day was a critical look at increasing accessibility for low-income and first-generation high school students. Speakers emphasized that a change in higher education stems from fundamental improvements in primary and high school learning.
Muñoz said this change must span the entire life of the student.
“[The approach is] really zero to 16 [years old] if we’re going to be successful and reach the kind of scale we’re talking about,” she said.
Michelle Obama’s speech focused on her Reach Higher Initiative, which aims to further the education of college counselors helping high school students through the admissions process. With a national average of one counselor per 471 students, many students lack the attention they need to get to college.
The first lady described this process as two divided worlds. The first, she said, is full of kids who lack the resources to be competitive in the college process, suffering from misinformation about topics such as the SAT or ACT, how to apply for financial aid or even where to look. The second is a narrower world of students who have all of these resources readily available.
“The fact is that right now, a small number of students are getting every advantage in the college admissions race while millions of other students who are just as talented can’t even begin to compete,” she said.
Biden echoed the stratification of high school students in the admissions process.
“I’m worried that we may end up with a two-tiered college system,” he said. “The most elite universities are limited to those who are truly exceptional intellectually and regardless of income are able to get scholarships to go or have significant resources.”
As part of her Reach Higher Initiative, the first lady announced a challenge to university campuses in her speech to send her videos of how they are targeting recruitment of lower-income, first-generation students. She agreed to speak at the commencements of schools with her favorite submissions.
She concluded her call for innovations in the college admissions process by reiterating the national benefits that could be gained from a more educated young population.
“We are depriving ourselves of so much human potential in this country,” the first lady said. “From the scientific discoveries these kids might make to the businesses that they might build to the leadership that they one day might show in all of our communities — we’re missing all of that.”