The Obamas’ brilliant move to help poor and minority students

Opinion

President Barack Obama (L) speaks about college opportunities while college student Troy Simon (C) and first lady Michelle Obama (R) sit nearby during an event on college opportunities in the Eisenhower Executive Office building, on January 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama both spoke about expanding college opportunities for low income studends. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama (L) speaks about college opportunities while college student Troy Simon (C) and first lady Michelle Obama (R) sit nearby during an event on college opportunities in the Eisenhower Executive Office building, on January 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama both spoke about expanding college opportunities for low income studends. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Looking to cut costs and balance their budgets, state governments across the country are both raising tuition for public colleges and cutting financial aid. The federal government, particularly Republicans in Congress, is also wary of putting more money into higher education. And money is not completely the answer to the continued under-performance by both low-income and minority students, who disproportionately either don’t attend college, don’t graduate or “undermatch,” meaning they underestimate their abilities and apply and attend lower-ranked schools than they should.

So Thursday, the Obama administration did something very smart. They organized an event for college presidents and other officials to talk about how they would seek to increase the success of disadvantaged students at their universities. But in a town full of panel discussions in which people restate problems everyone in the room already knew before they arrived, there was a catch: to attend, your school or state actually had to pledge to do something first, by rolling out some kind of actual policy that you would fund and implement that could help students.

At the event, there were speeches from the president and the first lady and others. But more importantly, the universities announced concrete ideas that will go into effect without Congress passing a bill, Obama signing it or the government pumping in billions of dollars. In a town obsessed with conflict, there was little for Republicans or anyone to criticize, and the president was not spending large amounts of federal dollars or attacking the GOP for failing to let him do so.

Bates University in Maine said it would host a series of panels at high schools with large numbers of low-income students to help them better understand the college admission process. Howard University said it would start a program to improve the graduation rates of its students who major in science and engineering. The College Board, which implements the SAT test, will partner with colleges to make sure that any low-income student who takes the test will be allowed to apply to four schools without paying the application fees. Portland State University will start recruiting at eight schools at which it currently does not, and that have high numbers of low-income students.

Dozens of other schools and states (more than 100, according to the White House) announced similar plans. None of them are a silver bullet and will themselves reverse the gaps in achievements between rich and poor kids or white and non-white students. Most of them are small-bore ideas that might only affect a few hundred students at many of these schools.

But the ideas are grounded in academic research that suggests that many of the barriers for low-income students reaching and achieving in college are not just about having the grades and the money, but lacking the right information or access to it or any kind of support network once they arrive on campus.

“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.  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,” first lady Michelle Obama said at event.

She added, “And so that means it’s our job to find those kids.  It’s our job to help them understand their potential and then get them enrolled in a college that can help them meet their needs.”

Obama and his aides have argued the president will increasingly use his “convening” power to bring influential people outside of politics together and solve problems that don’t require congressional approval. The colleges event suggest this approach could be both politically smart and, more effectively, lead to actual results.