I had a front row seat at the White House Summit on College Opportunity last Thursday, December 4, which gave me an opportunity to focus somewhat more carefully than usual on how our national leaders speak about the vitally important issues of college access, affordability and degree completion today. President Obama underscored his longstanding commitment to college access for all Americans: “Making sure more of our young people have access to higher education and can succeed and complete their work and get their degree — that has to be an American issue.” Not a Democratic or Republican issue, he repeated, but an American issue. He made an oblique reference to the problem of chronic racial injustice in the criminal justice system made clear in the recent protests over the grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, and how education must be the means to restore our “common sense of purpose.” I wish he were less oblique and more direct, but this is a president who seems worn down by all of the fierce and unrelentingly complicated issues at home and abroad.
President Obama called out members of Congress who are trying to undo the limited help that the Obama Administration has extended to undocumented students covered by DACA (Deferred action for childhood arrivals): “One thing we certainly shouldn’t be doing is making it harder for more striving young kids to finish their education and depriving America of their talents and discoveries…. it does not make sense for us to want to push talent out rather than make sure that they’re staying here and contributing to society.”
As I listened to President Obama, Secretary of Education Duncan and others, I felt a good deal of pride in Trinity for what we have been doing for a long time to ensure educational opportunity and justice for our students. Long before the White House got involved in calling together presidents of very wealthy colleges to ask if they could take a few more impoverished students (the January White House summit invited a very narrow list of mostly wealthy, elite colleges and universities, prompting a good deal of criticism among institutions like Trinity that serve precisely the populations that President Obama has declared an urgent national priority), Trinity has welcomed a majority of very low income students as a matter of mission. Nearly 80% of Trinity’s undergraduates receive Pell Grants, and among full-time first-year students, the median family income is just about $25,000. Those statistics are startling when compared to the income profile of students attending not only elite private universities but even many public universities today. Trinity leads the way when it comes to providing a high quality education for students who might not otherwise be able to go to college — we were founded to provide access for women who, in 1897, were excluded from the men’s universities of that time. Though the students have changed with the times, the historic mission first articulated by the Sisters of Notre Dame continues, deeply rooted in the virtue of social justice.
During the summit, First Lady Michele Obama spoke of her personal passion to improve college counseling in high schools. She spoke of the “two worlds” of counseling — the kind of counseling that occurs in very large public schools where counselors have huge caseloads and little time to help students, and the small, intimate forms of counseling that occur in largely private school settings where already-well-prepared students get every advantage in the college prep process. Mrs. Obama announced the Reach Higher initiative to encourage schools, colleges and universities to do more to improve college counseling.
Here again, I’m proud to say that Trinity’s master’s program in Counseling embeds college counseling in the degree courses, and our partnerships with a broad range of college access providers (DC-CAP, College Success Foundation – DC, KIPP-DC, Cristo Rey, others) also helps to ensure as much opportunity as possible, particularly for D.C. students.
As part of our participation in the White House Summit, every college and university had to make a specific commitment to do more to improve access. While Trinity already does quite a lot, we made two additional commitments:
- Partnership with the D.C. Public Schools to improve the capacity of students who intend to major in Nursing or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines to succeed in math and other essential general education courses;
- Development of cohorts of students who want to major in the sciences and math, similar to the successful Conway Scholars program for Nursing.
The full compendium of the hundreds of university commitments is here: White House Summit College Commitments 12 4 2014
Will anything come of all of this talk? For Trinity, the real action takes place every single day. I hope that by participating in the summit, Trinity can get more visibility for the great work we are doing here, and, by extension, find ways to secure additional financial support for our students and the services they need for success. Every opportunity we have to tell Trinity’s story helps us to win more support to make our mission even stronger.