Commentary: Rhetoric can't wish away reality of graduation rates

President Barack Obama's attempt to wrap the urgency of raising high school graduation rates into patriotic terms was a new twist on addressing one of the nation's most significant problems.

Obama seemed to be intoning JFK's "ask not" speech in his televised talk to Congress last week. Dropping out of high school is not an option, the president said.

"It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country – and this country needs and values the talents of every American."

Couldn't agree more, but the commentary quickly had me thinking about the hard lessons learned from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's Project Choice program, a dropout-prevention effort of intense mentoring that offered the chance of a full scholarship to college. The program ended in 2001 but was reincarnated as Kauffman Scholars and continues, with many lessons learned.

It is one thing for the president to stand at a podium and use pointed language about making the U.S. more competitive. Just as it was one thing for a wealthy philanthropist like Kauffman to wish college degrees for low-income students.

Making it a reality took a lot more than good will, money and ideals about believing in youth, despite their present circumstances.

Obama set the goal of America once again having "the highest proportion of college graduates in the world" by 2020. He offered the carrot of a paid college tuition in exchange for military or community service. That's where Obama waded right into territory that the Kauffman Foundation knows well.

To read the complete column, visit www.kansascity.com.