Obama, First Lady Present New Agenda for Low-Income College Students

Dorothy Rowley | 1/16/2014, 11 p.m.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama greet Troy Simon, a student at Bard College, backstage prior to the College Opportunity Summit at the White House on Jan. 16, 2014. (Pete Souza/The White House)

Troy Simon stood before a crowded audience at the White House and recounted his struggle with a broken home, illiteracy, bad grades and the abject poverty he and his family suffered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But looking back, Simon — a 20-year-old New Orleans native attending Bard College in New York on a full scholarship — said that while he could offer a "portfolio of excuses" for his personal and academic inadequacies, he's grateful having had the chance to turn around his life and attend college.

Simon's success story exemplifies the Obama administration's effort to help more low-income students afford and graduate from college, the president and first lady said during the College Opportunity Summit at the White House on Jan. 16.

President Obama said during the event that unemployment for Americans with a college degree is more than a third lower than the national average, with incomes higher than twice those with high school diplomas.

"More than ever, a college degree is the surest path to a stable middle class life," Obama said. "We want more young people to have the chance at education, and in the 21st century economy, we all understand it's never been more important."

The Obama administration crafted an ambitious new agenda last summer to improve college value, remove barriers to innovation and competition and to ensure that student debt remains affordable — all with the goal of leading the world in the number of college graduates by 2020.

Thursday's event was attended by students, college and university presidents, and dozens of other education advocates and organizations. More than 100 new commitments were announced for expanding college opportunities among low-income students and helping to increase minorities' performances at predominantly white institutions.

The commitments, which were agreed upon by college officials, include increasing the pool of students preparing for college through early interventions, leveling the playing field in college advising and SAT/ACT test preparation, doubling federal investments in Pell Grants and reforming student loans. For example, officials at D.C.'s Howard University said they would launch an initiative to improve the graduation rates of students who major in science and engineering.

The commitments are set to go into effect without Congress passing a bill.

First lady Michelle Obama said during the summit that Troy is a reminder of "all the limitless possibilities that lie within our young people."

"He is an example of why we should all care deeply about this issue," she said. "That's why more and more in the coming years, I'm going to be spending more of my time focusing on education, because it's the key to success for so many kids."

For Simon, the turning point was when he realized he was setting a bad example for his younger siblings.

"I couldn't read until I was 14. I was held back twice and developed aggressive strategy skills to hide my illiteracy," Simon said. "My report card continually confirmed my failure, and on the days that I did attend school, I started fights, shoved desks and wrote on walls — anything to get myself out of the classroom."

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