President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a White House College Opportunity Summit on Jan. 16 to highlight their commitment to promoting greater post-secondary access and success for students coming from low-income households. I was honored to be among more than 80 university presidents and educational leaders who were invited to attend the summit. Each leader was expected to make a significant commitment on behalf of his or her institution or organization to expand opportunities for college completion for low-income students.
The resulting commitments are as varied as the universities and colleges represented at the summit. Some of the initiatives focus on helping small groups of additional students, as few as 10 to 20, pursue and achieve a college education. Others, like Georgia State’s commitment, will touch thousands of students and hold the promise of increasing the percentage of students from low-income households who attend and complete college.
Georgia State’s commitment is to launch an innovative “Early Alert System for Financial Risk” that will use massive amounts of data, predictive analytics and timely interventions to mitigate student attrition due to financial factors and to give students the maximum opportunity to succeed. Combined with a new student financial counseling center and expanded efforts to promote financial literacy, we will work to address what is the single largest cause of students dropping out of Georgia State: financial challenge.
Like our proactive academic advising system that is receiving national attention, our new financial-risk initiative is one more important step toward achieving Georgia State’s strategic goal of developing a new “model for undergraduate education by demonstrating that students from all backgrounds can achieve academic and career success at high rates.”
In his remarks President Obama said: “[We] want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that’s at the heart of America — the notion that if you work hard you can get ahead, you can improve your situation in life, you can make something of yourself.”
Those words resonated with me, as they should with every American. As children we are told early and often that if we work hard we can get ahead in life and expect to have more and better opportunities than our parents had.
That was certainly true for my brothers and me. Our parents believed the way to a better life was through education. Even though my parents were not college graduates, they expected all three of us boys to graduate from college, and they worked, scrimped and saved so that we would have that opportunity. Today all three of us are college graduates, holding graduate degrees from prestigious institutions and enjoying successful professional careers.
President Obama’s words about upward mobility are meaningful because today the path to a better life is almost wholly different than it was for earlier generations. It used to be that without a college degree you could, as my parents did, find work that provided an income and benefits sufficient to move up and into the middle class. You could afford to buy a home and to send your children to college. The challenge today is that those jobs are disappearing, or if they remain they are more likely to go to college graduates.
Consider the case of my mother and her two sisters. None of them attended college, and yet all three had productive and rewarding careers by moving from entry-level secretary positions into positions of greater responsibility and ultimately into positions with managerial responsibilities. More and more of those same types of positions are filled today at the entry level by college graduates, not high school graduates because the work requirements of the positions have changed considerably since the dawn of the information revolution.
The pool of good paying jobs and careers available to individuals without some sort of post-secondary education is shrinking and will likely continue to shrink for the foreseeable future. Huge numbers of manufacturing and production line jobs have been eliminated by automation and robotics. Imagine the day, and it most likely is not very far off, when autonomous trucks eliminate thousands of truck driving jobs. Autonomous hauling systems produced by Caterpillar and Komatsu already are being deployed in the mining sector, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos promises a day when drones rather than drivers will deliver your latest order to your front door. There will be a demand for the people who will program and manage these systems, and the educations required for those jobs will range from a technical college certificate and associate’s degree all the way up to a bachelor’s or graduate degree.
The White House College Opportunity Summit gives new energy and focus to providing pathways to post-secondary education and upward mobility for those who are least likely to have such opportunities. Our nation will require a steadily increasing share of the population to be college educated in order to continue to prosper economically and as a world leader. The sad reality in America today is that our nation lags many other developed nations in the percentage of the population completing a college degree. In addition, fewer than 10 percent of individuals raised in a low-income household, defined here as being in the bottom quartile of the income distribution, are attaining a college degree.
With post-secondary education becoming increasingly more central to upward mobility, our nation must be committed to improving the educational opportunities for low-income Americans. The future of our economy, and the future of our democracy, depends upon the outcome. I am proud that Georgia State is a national leader in these efforts.
Photos by Mark P. Becker