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Obamas kick off push to make college more accessible

By Renee Schoof
McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON America needs to do more to help low-income young people succeed in college, President Barack Obama told a gathering at the White House on Thursday of educational, business and philanthropic leaders, who pledged to take on extra efforts to help more students reap the benefits of a college degree.

“There is this huge cohort of talent we’re not tapping,” Obama said, citing research that shows that only 30 percent of low-income students enroll in college after high school and, by their mid-20s, only 9 percent earn a bachelor’s degree.

With officials from 80 colleges and 40 businesses and philanthropies in attendance, the president said he talks about education from personal experience.

“I grew up with a single mom,” he said. “She had me when she was 18 years old. There are a lot of circumstances where that might have waylaid her education for good. But there were structures in place that allowed her then to go on and get a PhD.”

To bolster his point, he said of first lady Michelle Obama, who also attended the conference, “Michelle’s dad was a shift worker at the city water plant. (Her) mom worked as a secretary. They didn’t go to college. But there were structures in place that allowed Michelle to take advantage of those opportunities.”

The commitments the White House received from schools and foundations fill an 89-page document. They include efforts to help high-achieving, low-income students get into schools that are a good match and extend them support until they graduate. They also hope to increase the pool of students getting ready for college and to help low-income students prepare for the SAT and ACT tests.

Initiatives include a plan by the College Board to offer four college admissions fee waivers to low-income students who take its SAT test. There’s a $65 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and $30 million from the Helmsley Charitable Trust to help more students complete degrees in science, technology, engineering or math.

Another effort calls on schools to hold summer enrichment programs, expand financial aid and take other steps to recruit low-income students.

“Despite education’s ability to level the playing field, there is, simply put, great inequality in our nation’s schools today,” said College Board president David Coleman.

He said a recent study showed that at the 193 most selective colleges and universities, 66 percent of students were from the top 25 percent in income and only 6 percent were from the bottom 25 percent.

“That is not because there is not great talent” in every income group, he said.

One large grant announced Thursday was $10 million to the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based College Advising Corps from the John M. Belk Endowment, a private family foundation in Charlotte, N.C. The funds will be used to increase the numbers of young college advisers in rural high schools in the state.

Graduates of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have participated in the advising program, but now North Carolina State University and Davidson College are joining the effort to expand the advising to 60 rural high schools in the state.

Nicole Hurd, founder and CEO of the National College Advising Corps, said that the average student to counselor ratio was 471-to-1.

The new grant will help expand the advising by recent college graduates who are assigned to high schools to encourage and advise.

Michelle Obama told the conference that she’d make education her focus for the three remaining years of her husband’s term and beyond.

Both she and her husband attended elite private universities. The first lady, who graduated from Princeton University, said the school had programs that helped her succeed and that then, as now, advising, mentoring and other efforts all are “simple steps that can determine whether these kids give up and drop out, or step up and thrive.”

“The truth is that if Princeton hadn’t found my brother as a basketball recruit, and if I hadn’t seen that he could succeed on a campus like that, it never would have occurred to me to apply to that school, never,” she said. “And I know that there are so many kids out there just like me – kids who have a world of potential, but maybe their parents never went to college, or maybe they’ve never been encouraged to believe they could succeed there.”

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof
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