Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the College Opportunity Summit

December 04, 2014

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you all so much. Thank you. Well, you guys rest yourselves. You've been very busy. (Laughter.) You're being spoken to a lot. I hear my husband was here. (Laughter.) But it is truly a pleasure to be here with all of you today, and I want to thank you so much for joining us for this year's College Opportunity Day of Action. You should be proud. We're already proud of you, and this day has just already been a tremendous success.

Of course I want to start by thanking Homero. I mean, he's just an amazing story, an amazing person, and I'm grateful for that wonderful introduction. We have to give him another round of applause. (Applause.) A clear reminder of why we're here today and what we're working for.

I also want to recognize the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, as well as the Lumina Foundation, for helping to make this event possible. Let's give them a round of applause as well. (Applause.)

And of course, as we come together to talk about the importance of college counseling, I especially want to recognize all of the school counselors here today. Yes! (Applause.) You can raise the roof for yourselves. A little raising the roof. (Laughter.) But I think we can all agree that all of our counselors, all of you have one of the hardest, but most important jobs in our education system, yet too often you don't get the resources, the support or the appreciation that you need and deserve. And that has serious consequences not just for our kids, but for our country.

I mean, let's be honest with ourselves –- when it comes to college counseling in our nation's schools, there are two worlds. As many of you know, while the American School Counselor Association recommends no more than 250 students per counselor, the national average is one counselor for every 471 students. So too many of our kids go through high school with little, if any, real guidance on how to get into college.

They don't know what classes to take, or how to prepare for the SAT or the ACT. No one helps them decide which colleges to apply to. No one reviews their applications. And plenty of kids have no idea that they're eligible for financial aid, so they assume they just can't afford college, and they don't even bother to apply.

Now, that's one world. The other world is much smaller –- it's a world of schools where the question isn't where students are going to college, but -- or whether they're going to college, but where. Kids in this world start preparing for college long before they even start high school. And from the first day of freshman year, they've been shepherded through every step of the process. They've got SAT and ACT prep courses, they take those tests again and again to improve their scores. Counselors have much smaller caseloads, and they walk kids through every deadline, they edit every draft of their essays. Honestly, when Barack and I talk about this, we look at the kind of college counseling many of the kids are getting today and we wonder how we ever managed to get ourselves into college.

So the fact is that right now, a small number of students are getting every advantage in the college admissions race, while millions of other students who are just as talented can't even begin to compete. (Applause.) And as the college presidents here all know, the result is that colleges aren't always getting all of the very best students. They're getting the students who can best afford to succeed in this system. And we are leaving behind so many bright, hungry, promise-filled kids. We are depriving ourselves of so much human potential in this country –- from the scientific discoveries these kids might make, to the businesses that they might build, to the leadership that they might one day show in our communities.

We're missing all of that. We're also losing all of that simply because we aren't making the basic investment in their future today, and that's a tragedy. It's a tragedy for our country. It's a tragedy for those kids and for their families, because we all know -- we know -- that if you want to secure a decent-paying job in today's economy, a high school diploma simply isn't enough.

So unlike 40 or 50 years ago, higher education is no longer just for kids in the top quarter or the top half of the class, it has to be for everyone. So we are going to need a college-counseling system that reflects this new reality. (Applause.)

Now, that's easier said than done. We know that this isn't going to happen overnight. We know that states and school systems are facing all kinds of budget challenges. But one of my core messages to students through my Reach Higher initiative is that no matter what is going on at their school or in their family, I've been trying to tell kids that no matter what resources they may have or not have, that they still need to take responsibility for their education. I tell them that they need to do the work to reach out to teachers who can help them. They need to research schools in their communities on their own. They need to find that FAFSA form online and fill it out.

So my message to all of you is the same: We all need to step up and do what we can with the resources we have, especially when it comes to supporting our school counselors. And that is exactly what so many of you have done through the commitments you've made as part of this summit.

Universities across the country have pledged to create college and career-readiness courses in their masters programs for school counselors. School districts are partnering with nonprofits and colleges to provide training for counselors once they're in our schools. Nonprofits are stepping up to improve student-and-counselor ratios and bringing recent graduates into schools to serve as role models and mentors.

And these are just the highlights. Altogether, these commitments represent tens of millions of dollars that will impact hundreds of schools and countless students. These are outstanding commitments, and we need more efforts like these all across this country. Every one of us has a role to play.

So for the superintendents here today, I know you all are struggling with so many demands under such tight budgets, but can you do more to support your counselors? Can you find ways to -- (applause) -- yes -- shift some of that extra burden that falls in their lap, like substitute teaching, case management, exam proctoring? Can you give them more time to actually counsel students?

To the college presidents here, can you do even more to make college counseling part of your mission to get the very best students to your schools? And can the foundations and nonprofit organizations help in that work? Can you rethink the college admissions process to find more of those students who've got what it takes to succeed but haven't had the chance to develop their potential? Can you create college prep centers in your communities and ensure that test-prep classes are affordable for all of our kids?

And for those of you who are concerned that perhaps this type of involvement might falsely raise hopes of admission to your school -- because I've heard that as well -- just consider the fact that while many of the kids you help might not be the right fit for your college or university, but they will be the right fit for another school, and maybe that other school will help prepare students for admission to your school. (Applause.)

So this is really a collective effort, and everyone can benefit. And as you all step up to take on these issues, really, I really want to hear about what you're doing. And that's one of the reasons why I recently announced two new Reach Higher Commencement Challenges. I'm asking colleges to create videos showcasing your work to bring low-income and first-generation students to your campuses for peer mentoring, college immersion experiences and all kind of wonderful opportunities.

And for the high schools, I want to see videos about what you're doing to increase your FAFSA completion rates to help more students afford college. And for those schools with the winning videos, I just might pay a visit around commencement time, if you know what I mean -- (laughter) -- to let you know how impressed I am.

So I hope that you all will go to ReachHigher.gov and get more information, because I'm eager to see what you all are doing. I know you're going to do some great things. You see, I know that the smallest, most local efforts can make such a difference in the lives of our young people.

And I'm thinking today of a school called La Cueva High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A few years ago, the college counseling staff at that school met with a young woman named Roberta Gutierrez during her sophomore year. Roberta was an excellent student, so they urged her to take the PSAT and come up with a list of colleges that she wanted to apply to. Now, while Roberta took the test, she never came up with that list -- and I'm sure you know why.

But then, at the beginning of Roberta's school year, her counselors learned that she had been named a National Merit Semi-Finalist with a PSAT score in the top 1 percent of the entire state. So the counselors -- yes, good stuff -- (applause) -- the counselors immediately informed Roberta that she would be eligible for thousands of dollars in scholarships. And Roberta, of course, she was shocked. She told them that she never made the list of colleges because her family lived from paycheck to paycheck, so she didn't think she could afford tuition. She told them that just to pay the $15 fee to take the PSAT, she had to skip lunch for a week.

And after meeting with Roberta, the counseling staff decided that no student at their school would ever again have to choose between eating and taking a test that opens the doors to college. So they now hold fundraisers -- yes. (Applause.) They hold fundraisers throughout the school year to ensure that low-income students can take the PSAT for free. And they go out of their way to tell every family about the financial aid resources that are available for college.

And as for Roberta, she is now in her junior year on a full scholarship at the University of New Mexico, and she's planning to get a PhD in psychology -- yes. (Applause.)

You all know these stories. There are so many kids just like Roberta all across this country, and they're bright. These kids are determined. These are the kids who have everything it takes to succeed if we would just give them that chance. And that's what the counselors and leaders at La Cueva High School did for Roberta -- they gave her a shot at the future she deserved.

And just think about the ripple effect that those counselors will have in transforming just one student's life. Think about the difference Roberta can make when she gets that PhD. Think of all the patients she might treat, all the groundbreaking research she might do. Think of the role model that she will be -- she already is -- inspiring countless young people just like her to pursue their dreams.

There are millions of young people like Roberta all across this country, and they are counting on us to step up for them. They're counting on us to give them opportunities worthy of their promise. And that is exactly what all of you are doing every single day. That is the purpose of the commitments that you've made as part of this summit. That's why I'm proud and honored to be here.

And I want to close today simply by saying thank you, truly. Thank you. Thank you for your passion. Thank you for your dedication. Thank you for your tremendous contributions to this country. I look forward to continuing our work together. We got a lot more stuff to do. And I cannot wait to see all that you are going to achieve in the months and years ahead.

So thank you so much. Keep it up. And let's bring more people to the table. You all take care. Thanks so much. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the College Opportunity Summit Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/321928

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