At the White House, a Clarion Call for College Access

March 5, 2014

Published in the March 5, 2014, issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly

When I began my “listening tour” to learn what Princeton alumni thought about our alma mater, I never imagined it might include a stop at the White House. But on Jan. 16 I joined more than 80 college and university presidents who heard one of Princeton’s most famous graduates, First Lady Michelle Obama ’85, talk about what her undergraduate experience had meant to her.

First Lady Michelle Obama ’85 discussed her life-changing experiences at Princeton in advocating for greater college access for low-income students. (Video still courtesy of the White House)

The first lady and President Barack Obama convened the unprecedented gathering of academic leaders to highlight the importance of increasing college graduation rates for low-income students. The first lady has said that college access will be her signature issue during her remaining years in the White House.

Though the president also spoke eloquently at the meeting, the first lady’s inspiring speech was the show-stopping highlight. She reminded her audience that she and her brother, my classmate Craig Robinson ’83, were the first members of their family to attend college.

She said that she would never have considered Princeton if the University had not recruited Craig to play basketball. And she described how Princeton’s summer orientation program and its Third World Center — now the Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding — were indispensible in helping her adjust to a place very different from the South Side Chicago neighborhood where she grew up.

The first lady used her own experience to underscore the life-changing benefits that a college education can provide to a young person from a low-income family. And the White House reinforced her message with a superb report, “Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students: Promising Models and a Call to Action.” The report also stressed that low-income students still face significant barriers to college success. Among its findings:

  • The value of a college education has never been higher than it is today.
  • Only one in 10 people from low-income families earn a bachelor’s degree by age 25, as compared to five in 10 from high-income families.
  • When low-income students do earn degrees, the effects are profound: For example, their chances of escaping the bottom income quartile increase by 50 percent.
  • The benefits of a college education for low-income students increase when they attend institutions that are selective and well resourced.
  • Demand for admission has grown faster than supply, especially at the most selective and best-resourced colleges and universities.

The remainder of the conference consisted of panels on best practices for increasing degree attainment by low-income students. Bridget Terry Long ’95, now a professor of education at Harvard University, presented research showing that even modest interventions — for example, helping high school students and their families to fill out financial aid forms — could have a dramatic impact on college access. Researchers affiliated with ideas42, an innovative behavioral economics nonprofit co-founded by Princeton Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Eldar Shafir, are conducting ongoing work to help meet the need identified by Professor Long.

Institutions attending the White House summit were required to make new commitments to benefit low-income students. Princeton responded with three enthusiastic promises that were the culmination of planning efforts that had been ongoing for more than a year.

We are working to increase the scope of our partnership with the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, a nonprofit organization that brings talented high school juniors from low-income backgrounds to the Princeton campus and prepares them for collegiate success. We are adding resources to our admissions office to reach more talented low-income applicants. And we are seeking to create a summer learning module to assist entering freshmen from disadvantaged backgrounds who are interested in the sciences, engineering, and mathematics.

The White House also gave us an opportunity to mention steps that we had already taken, such as our leading financial aid program. The White House’s report confirmed what Princetonians know already: To get the full benefit of a college education, students need a financial aid package that makes college really and truly affordable.

In addition, we described the expansion of our student body over the last decade. Given the extraordinary benefits that flow from an education at a highly selective college, one of the most impactful things that Princeton can do for students — from low-income and other backgrounds — is to make more places available.

Princeton has done a lot to increase access since the days when Michelle Obama and I were students here — but we can and should do more. I hope that all alumni who care about Princeton’s commitment to be “in the nation’s service” will rally around the first lady’s call to action. We should find ways to provide to other low-income students the kind of experiences that mattered so much in her life, and in all of ours.