Obama's Call Of College For All: Could It Be Done?

In his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, President Barack Obama called for every American to pursue some form of education beyond high school.

It's an ambitious goal — some might say impossible. Currently, only two of every five American adults have a two- or four-year college degree. Millions of Americans struggle even to complete high school, with one in four dropping out. And even a high school degree is no guarantee a student is ready for college.

Particularly alarming are the college rates for low-income and minority students. One recent study reported more than 90 percent of low-income teens said they planned to go to college — but only half actually enroll.

Those who do enroll are substantially less likely than others to finish their degree. If they borrowed money for college and don't graduate, they may be worse off than if they hadn't even started college.

The Associated Press asked six experts — from the worlds of policy, philanthropy, and some who work directly with struggling students — to answer the same two questions.

Is the president's goal realistic? And what would it take to attain it? Here are their responses.


Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, an advocacy group for children, particularly poor and minority children:

Absolutely! Just as those GIs stepped up to the challenges of college, today's young people will, too. But we have work to do.

First, we must get serious about high schools. Instead of preparing some for college and others for the jailhouse, we need to help high schools prepare every student for college.

Second, we have to dramatically improve results for low-income and minority students, now more than half of our youth. Increasing their success is the only way to ensure our national success.

Finally, colleges need to accept some responsibility for improving graduation rates. (See collegeresults.org for information on any college.) That includes holding costs down, and focusing not just on getting students in the door, but out with degrees. Yes, students need to work harder. But what colleges do matters a lot.

Richard Vedder, Ohio University professor and member of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education assembled by former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings:

Not everyone can or should go to college. Given the dubious quality of our secondary schools as well as limited cognitive skills and motivation, many students are incapable of college-level work. Fulfillment of President Obama's goal would lead to many students failing, resources being squandered and the quality of postsecondary education being diluted.

I think it is sheer fantasy to believe we will lead the world in the percent of young adults with college degrees by 2020. More generally, the president's approach is the equivalent of dropping dollars out of airplanes over student homes and college campuses. That will not change colleges' behavior to make them less arrogant and elite, and more affordable, efficient and accountable.


Nicole Hurd, executive director of the National College Advising Corps, which places recent college graduates in low-income schools to work as college guidance counselors:

All students are capable of continuing their education beyond high school. And while there are no easy answers, one way to open the door wider is to demonstrate to our young people that college is possible.

No one can do this better than recent college graduates. There is something powerful about a 23-year-old telling a high school student that "I went to college and if I can do it, you can, too." Or "My family was worried about the cost of college, but the aid is out there. Let's sit down and fill out your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)." Or "If you want to go to college and get a good job, you need to take hard classes and do your best."

Many of the barriers to higher education, whether financial, social, or cultural, can be overcome through this kind of mentoring and advising. In calling high-school students to college, President Obama is calling college students to service. Just imagine if 500 recent graduates served in our public high schools. Such a group could mentor 150,000 low-income and first-generation students — and could help thousands enroll in college who might not otherwise have found their way. While this kind of service isn't the only solution, it could go a long way.

Eduardo J. Marti, president of Queensborough Community College in New York City:

President Obama's call for higher education for all Americans is doable.

The United States began building higher education capacity in 1947, when the Truman Commission established the concept of universal access to higher education and created open admissions community colleges. The 1965 Higher Education Act established financial aid. These two actions resulted in a post-secondary education system that guarantees access to all. No other country has this infrastructure.

All Americans, young or old, can use community colleges to upgrade their skills or obtain a degree. This existing system can be used to retrain displaced workers for better jobs and it can be used to prepare the leaders of tomorrow. We must make America competitive again.

We must also hold our community colleges accountable by developing strenuous metrics of excellence. The national Achieving the Dream Project is studying innovative approaches in 82 colleges and we can use those results to measure our success. The shattered dreams and wasted fiscal resources that result from low graduation rates must be stopped.


Gaston Caperton, former governor of West Virginia and president of the College Board, which works to connect students to college and runs the SAT and AP exam programs:

Not only is the president's goal realistic, achieving it is also vital to the future economic and social well-being of our society. Among the most important steps to attain it are:

—An earlier start to schooling, especially for youngsters from low-income families. Greater access to and participation in preschool programs, such as Head Start, would help put many, many more young people on the path to college.

—Access to more rigorous courses in middle and high school, taught by teachers with strong training and access to sustained professional development.

—Better strategies for making college affordable, such as early college savings plans for all students, including plans that are subsidized by the government for low-income families.

—Adult education programs that make it easier to return to college, through online courses or community colleges.


Jamie P. Merisotis, president of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, which works to expand access to higher education:

President Obama's goal is challenging, but it's certainly realistic. At Lumina Foundation, our own goal is to increase Americans' attainment of high-quality degrees from its current 39 percent rate to 60 percent by 2025.

We know that our goal is ambitious. Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken — by educators, policy makers and the public — to help realize BOTH goals.

First, we must ensure that students truly prepare themselves for college success: academically, financially and socially. Second, higher education institutions must direct their full energies toward the success (not just the enrollment) of students — especially low-income and minority students. Finally, we must encourage efforts that improve efficiency and productivity on the nation's campuses, so more students are properly served.

You must be logged in to post comments.

Password (case sensitive):
Remember Me:

Read Comments

Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
  • by OK Location: NC on Mar 11, 2009 at 02:08 AM
    I thought this would be a no brainer. I can't believe that you all don't see the benefits of having an educated society. Why shouldn't we all pursuit higher education. Last time I checked colleges and universities weren't letting in people who didn't meet their minimal standards. I feel that if an institution of higher education accepted you then you deserve it. We all know that higher education is not in everyone’s future. These people still should be trained to do some kind of job. We all should be productive members of society. I don’t get how so many people complain about others being a drain on society and in the same breath say they should not take the necessary measures to rectify the situation.
  • by Sam Location: Willliamston on Mar 2, 2009 at 10:19 AM
    What needs to come into effect is not Obama's plan, because it will never work out. There are too many dumb people in this nation to even make it to getting a high school education. There are also way too many poor people, let alone homeless people. I understand what Obama would like to see, but instead of college educations for the whole nation (which would throw money out the window) how about get the high schools to encourage such people such as Auto Mechanics, Construction Workers, Farmers, and others to go to a trade school of some kind that will help them do better at their job. If you can get a specific type of training program for people going into these professions, then that will be a good cheap way to help everybody raise their skills at what they do. When this happens, that is when you will see a much better economy happen. Dependin on the american taxpayer isn't the way to go. The US will only move backwards. Some jobs it's just go do it, such as picking up trash or clean
  • by hope Location: NC on Mar 1, 2009 at 08:10 PM
    Wise One, I was speaking in general terms.
  • by The Wise One Location: NC on Mar 1, 2009 at 05:27 PM
    Hope, I believe that is what merit scholarships are for. They provide money to those individuals who work hard and participate in service projects.
  • by Cactus Location: Strabane on Mar 1, 2009 at 03:11 PM
    Exactly Kimo,when was the last time a clerk counted your return change at the cash register????
  • by hope Location: NC on Mar 1, 2009 at 08:33 AM
    The hardest working, brightest students are the ones being left behind. These are the students that represent the hope for our future. Let's invest some tax dollars there. Don't just give it away, make a student EARN it.
  • by Obama Snake Oil Co Location: Washington on Mar 1, 2009 at 06:39 AM
    Ole unwise one, are you aware of what is in his stimulus package. Before you judge us on what the guy says, judge us on what "he" does and what a democratic house does. I am pretty sure you can find the amount slated for schools and colleges in the stimulus program. Billions. Your children will thank you one day for selling out their future. 7 trillion dollars worth. Please review the facts on this guy, he's crazy.
  • by Kimo Location: Belhaven on Mar 1, 2009 at 06:31 AM
    Probably a good idea (as long as trade schools, etc. are included - which raises the issue that if that's what the Messiah meant, why didn't he say it??). But the first thing thing that needs to happen is that the people graduating from high school have an high school education. You, know, one that includes the ability to read, write, and do sums.... As it currently stands, about all we can be sure of when they graduate is that they are four (or five - or more) years older than they were when they started.
  • by The Wise One Location: NC on Feb 28, 2009 at 10:23 PM
    Maybe I do need to comment since everyone seems to ignore poor old Steven. Obama is not advocating that everyone goes to a 4-year university. Not only would that be impossible due to the fact that everyone is not suited for college, but it would also be extremely costly. Obama simply said that everyone needs some type of education beyond high school. I think his statement is valid given the changing conditions of the workforce. People who are good with a specific type of trade should do an apprenticeship or traineeship. People who are willing to juggle the books a few more years, should go to college. The bottom line is that everyone should complete high school and some type of additional training/education. What if Obama said that only one group of students should receive higher education? What would you naysayers have said then? You folks are so inconsistent that you're senseless.
  • by Susan Location: New Bern on Feb 28, 2009 at 08:16 PM
    They get Pell grant money that is from your tax-dollars. This is federal free money and does not have to be paid back. It is not a loan, it is free money for college and they know how to work it to get this money, so what is the big deal, they already get free college.
  • Page:

275 E. Arlington Blvd. Greenville, NC 27858 252-439-7777
Copyright © 2002-2016 - Designed by Gray Digital Media - Powered by Clickability 40477107 - witn.com/a?a=40477107
Gray Television, Inc.