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From First-generation College Student to First Lady

As we celebrate the success of a first lady who matriculated through urban public schools, we must recommit ourselves to ensure the system works for more young people.

As the nation faces a historic moment of change with the election of Barack Obama, we are also celebrating another American success story in the ascent of Michelle Obama from first-generation college student to first lady of this great nation.

Many of us listened in awe during the Democratic convention as Michelle’s mother recounted her humble upbringing; parents who barely graduated high school but made it a priority to send both children to two of the nation’s top colleges in the country — Princeton and Harvard universities.

Michelle Obama’s journey from an innercity public school in Chicago to Harvard Law School is a striking affirmation of the American dream. Her story holds out hope for lowincome students everywhere. Despite all the challenges our nation faces, we now have more opportunities for students who are prepared to succeed — just as Michelle Obama did over 20 years ago. Currently more than 100 colleges offer no-loan financial aid packages to families making less than $60,000 a year, which amounts to an “almost free education.” Yet even as higher education institutions have increased opportunities for low-income students with generous financial aid and outreach efforts, we see fewer students prepared to take advantage of those opportunities.

Twenty-five years after the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” which was considered the clarion call for educational reform, the gaps in college success for low-income students are wider now than they were in 1983. Today, as one child drops out of high school every 26 seconds — more than one million a year — we are still at risk. A recent report, “Cities in Crisis,” published by America’s Promise, underscores the deeper challenge in urban school districts. The average graduation rate of the top 50 cities is 51.8 percent but as low as 24.9 percent in Detroit. So what can we do to address these issues and increase the number of students like Michelle Obama who successfully graduate from college? Here are three key commitments we can make:

• Ensure students graduate from high school college-ready by providing access to quality after-school programs

As we continue to invest in improving the quality of our schools, we should also invest in effective college-preparatory programs. These programs can provide complementary learning in an after-school setting to put more students on the path to college success. Although there are a growing number of magnet and college-preparatory schools, too many students are confined to schools that fail to provide the prerequisite courses needed to attend a fouryear college.

• Close the achievement gap by addressing the preparation gap

Over the past decade, there has been a lot of attention paid to the “achievement gap” that exists in underresourced communities. In too many cases, even students who do achieve good grades find that they are in need of remedial courses. Many low-income students, who are “pioneers” in the admissions process, do not have the benefit of parents or siblings who have gone before them. They lack the financial resources to provide the same level of test preparation, coaching and advising that their more privileged counterparts receive, which leaves them disadvantaged throughout the college admissions process. In addition, the financial barriers that impede college access have also been shown to disproportionately affect students from low-income households. College costs are becoming more difficult to finance given the “perfect-storm” combination of escalating tuition rates, constrained grant aid, and the credit market crisis. While test preparation and financial support alone are not sufficient to close the gap, they can serve as equalizers in the increasingly competitive college admissions process.

• Let students know that college choice matters

Students need better information on college graduation and retention rates. Research shows that while access to four-year colleges has increased, a smaller percentage of students are graduating. While almost 60 percent of White students who enter a four-year college go on to earn a degree, only 41 percent of all Black and Hispanic students have the same level of success, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Too many low-income and minority students — even those who are academically prepared to attend more selective colleges — enroll in colleges with low graduation and retention rates. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that where a student attends college is a significant indicator of the student’s likelihood to graduate from college; the higher the graduation rate, the better the chances are that they will graduate.

We have an opportunity for real change in the coming years — to provide a quality education as the vehicle to success for all people. Michelle Obama’s experience shows that the system can work.

As we celebrate her success as first lady, each of us can recommit ourselves to make sure the system works for more young people from the Southside of Chicago and other communities all across the country. If we are successful in doing that, the legacy of the Obama presidency will extend well beyond his tenure in the White House.

Margaret Daniels Tyler is a senior program officer with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Karen Y. Johns is president and founder of the Johns Group LLC, a consultancy that helps corporations and educational institutions develop diverse educational and work force talent pipelines.

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