N.C. schools join White House effort to make college more accessible

McClatchy Washington BureauJanuary 16, 2014 

— The leaders of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University and Davidson College joined a White House education summit on Thursday made up of schools and philanthropies that pledged to take new steps to help more low-income students succeed in college.

“We wouldn’t be in higher education if we didn’t believe higher education is critically important to the success of the country,” North Carolina State Chancellor Randy Woodson told the gathering. “And we can’t be successful if the only people accessing our education are those with financial means. So we’ve just got to continue to work hard to help young people see their future.”

A key part of North Carolina’s new commitment to college access was a new $10 million grant for the College Advising Corps from the John M. Belk Endowment of Charlotte to increase the number of young college graduates who serve as advisers in rural high schools across the state.

UNC-CH has been a part of the advising corps, but the new initiative brings in participation from North Carolina State and Davidson, which will place students in the program for the first time.

The three schools also stepped up with other pledges.

University of North Carolina Chancellor Carol Folt said that her school would expand the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program, a program that aims to promote diversity in science, technology, engineering and math courses. The university also pledged $4 million over four years for a program to help low-income, first-generation students graduate.

“We’re adding a pretty substantial financial commitment to do all that, but we’ll think of other ones as well,” Folt said.

Davidson said it would work with The Posse Foundation, a nonprofit group that identifies and trains student leaders, to recruit and educate a group of 50 students from Miami over five years. The school plans to provide full scholarships and faculty mentors. North Carolina State’s pledge included plans to work with ASPIRE, a program that helps rural students prepare for the ACT and SAT tests.

President Barack Obama said the commitments presented Thursday were “an extraordinary accomplishment, and we didn’t pass a bill to do it.” But he said that more needed to be done.

“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. The also hope to increase the pool of students getting ready for college and 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 also 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.

Michelle Obama told the audience that she’d make education her focus for the three remaining years of her husband’s term and beyond. She praised the attendees for finding new ways to help disadvantaged students navigate financial aid and identify schools where student have a chance to be successful.

Both Obamas 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 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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