By John W. Boyd Jr.
President, Black Farmers Association
President Obama is far out in front of our stale, stubborn Congress on the issue of expanding college education to more under-represented Americans, just as on many progressive programs this administration struggles to promote.
Last week the President announced his proposals to improve the college education system, but once again he has to use his executive powers to circumvent Congressional resistance and urge college presidents to do more to reach underserved populations. Why? Because our legislature still seems set on stiff-arming against doing what is right for our next generation of leaders.
As I struggle to pay for my son’s college education at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, I know full well that the high costs of tuition, meals, housing and transportation are just off the charts for middle class Americans. I can only imagine how much these hurdles must strain the growing number of families that are sinking financially.
Let’s face it, without a college degree this day and time, a young person is almost guaranteed to have a tough row to hoe for the future. If anyone believes that a generation divided between those with a collegeeducation and those shut out of one is good for our nation is wearing blinders.
“More than ever a college degree is the surest path to a stable middle class life,” President Obama said during his January 15 summit on expanding college access for lower-income students. The meeting was part of his aggressive effort to push for social advancements, using his presidential powers in lieu of Congressional support.
First Lady Michelle Obama brought her own full-voiced support to the President’s agenda with a moving and eloquent speech about her professional rise by way of an Ivy League education. Hard work and exceptional opportunities enabled her success at Princeton University and Harvard Law School, she said. Such access was beyond her family’s blue-collar background, she said, but not beyond today’s youth if they get solid support.
“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,” she said. “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.”
The First Lady challenged colleges and universities to improve their efforts in enroll low income high school students who are ready to take on college studies.
But the White House’s initiatives on education will never be enough to meet the President’s goal of being first in the world on college graduation rates. The question is whether we are doing enough as citizens to challenge and strengthen our educational system? The answer is “NO.”
The President and First Lady opened the door. Now, we have to do our part as parents and leaders in our own communities. We can do so by getting involved in our own state programs and policies, by contacting the U.S. Department of Education and becoming informed about what resources are available for students preparing to attend college. What can we change? For example, do we tolerate school counselors who give more support to students from affluent families than those of poorer parents?
Or, how about mentoring one student; think of how much a difference that would make if each American who went to college made a commitment to help one student reach that goal? We, as everyday citizens have to start doing more to make college more accessible and affordable for our children. I believe that we can all find creative ways to further the initiatives the White House announced in these three main areas:
–Reaching out to elementary, middle and high school students in hopes that by engaging earlier, more students will be encouraged to pursue higher education.
–Boosting remedial programs so underprepared students will still have opportunities to succeed.
–Seeking to ensure lower-income students aren’t disadvantaged by lack of access to college advisers and inability to prepare for entrance exams like the SAT and ACT.
As I watched the announcement I expected more college and universities to come forward and endorse the administration’s efforts. I anticipated more from corporate America, especially as often read about how fortune 500 companies cannot find enough qualified persons to fill certain positions. It is not too late.
The President and First Lady have presented a starter set of solutions to the “problem,” which I see as an opportunity. We have to urge businesses and other institutions to invest more resources in college scholarships, mentoring programs and other drives to help raise expectations and mold the minds of young people.
How can we be the greatest country in the world and not provide more muster than we do now toward elevating education? To put it simply, we can do better.