President Obama's Next Four Years: Invest in Higher Education

Over the past four years, building on the foundation of accountability established by No Child Left Behind, the president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have fostered a revolution in K-12 education. Not content to tinker around the edges or institute piecemeal changes, the Obama reforms, including Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation and a suite of other programs, have changed the way the federal government approaches K-12 education. These changes have been transformative, affecting not only those schools and states that receive funds but those that want to be eligible for funds.

Taken together, these reforms have placed the country squarely on track to be a nation whose high school graduates will, in the future, meet higher academic standards and be both college- and career-ready. That goal is not achieved now.

But being college-ready is not enough. Four years ago, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama set the bar where it should be. He pledged to make us a nation of college graduates, a nation that, by 2020, just seven years from now, would once again lead the world in the percentage of citizens with college degrees. He made a powerful pledge in that declaration, but we remain distant from that important goal.

Now we have to do the work to make sure that more Americans, particularly at-risk students, not only graduate from high school college-ready but make the transition to college and persist through graduation. That's what the country needs. With most good-paying jobs and career paths requiring at least a four-year degree, American employers and communities need a college-educated workforce and a college-educated citizenry.

In a country rapidly trending majority "minority," our college-educated workforce and communities will need to come from groups who are not already on the pathway that leads to and through college. In other words, they will need to come from the ranks of low-income Americans and Americans of color.

And we shouldn't just be thinking about young Americans, either. Many in the labor force started their careers when a college education was not as important as it is today. Many others needed to go to work right out of high school or were discouraged from going to college because they were told that they were not college material -- as if advanced education were a scarce resource that has to be rationed. Whatever their reason for not going to college, or for starting but not finishing, we need to get them on the college track, too.

So President Obama's goal for the next four years is to do for college what he did for K-12 education: formulate and implement a comprehensive, high-powered strategy for getting American students -- with an unapologetic emphasis on low-income black and Hispanic students, because there are so many of them, and they have been the most alienated from college -- to and through college, and to give Secretary Duncan and the Department of Education the funding and direction to make it happen.

It's not that the Obama administration hasn't done anything for college. Early in his administration he gave it high visibility, with mentions in his first speech to a joint session of Congress. He challenged colleges to bring down the cost of going to college. He supported Pell Grants and direct student loans. I was in the Oval Office when he signed the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. That's all to the good.

But those are ideas and measures, not the kind of strategy that the administration deployed for K-12. Where are the kind of innovative, disruptive (in the good sense) policies and programs he deployed for K-12 education in Race to the Top? Thorough K-12 reform will be a long time coming; where are the initiatives and support to provide remediation now for students badly served by their pre-college education? Where are the carrots and sticks that the president's call for lower tuition seemed to promise? Where are the breakthrough strategies (what about loan forgiveness for students who become teachers after college graduation?) for helping low-income students pay the cost of college?

Academic underpreparedness and lack of financial resources are the two biggest reasons students don't complete college. How can low-income students break the cycle of poverty if they cannot afford to pay for the education that will enable them to earn more?

Good ideas are out there, piloted, evaluated and ready to be taken to scale and woven into a broad strategy. UNCF's 20-year, $1.6-billion Gates Millennium Scholars program has provided good-through-graduation scholarships for over 16,000 low-income African-American, Hispanic-American, Native-American and Asian-American students and achieved a 90-percent graduation rate -- significantly higher than the national graduation rate for all students, and comparable to the graduation rates for higher income students -- thanks to baked-in academic, leadership and mentoring support available to all Gates Scholars. Recent independent research and studies by UNCF's Patterson Research Institute have shown that historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), like those that belong to UNCF, outperform many better-known and better-funded institutions at graduating low-income African Americans.

What best practices have these programs and institutions tested that could play a part in a comprehensive to-and-through college policy? There are many other programs that have the potential to be parts of the kind of comprehensive strategy the country needs, and many other organizations and experts who would be eager to contribute to such a strategy.

For nearly 70 years UNCF has concentrated with laser focus on graduating black students from college. We have raised over $3 billion and helped more than 400,000 students earn college degrees. This year we will award over $100 million in scholarships to some 15,000 students at nearly 1,000 colleges and universities. Yet with all this work, the African-American college completion rate still lags behind that of whites, as does the percentage of black college graduates in the population.

Though we are working hard, we are not collectively producing the results that we must if America is to regain its leadership as the world's leading producer of college graduates -- the goal President Obama established in his first weeks in office four years ago. So UNCF has established increasing the number of black college graduates as our "North Star" goal. And we are reexamining everything we do and reengineering where necessary to make sure that we are doing more -- and doing it more effectively -- to reach our goal of closing the college completion gap between blacks and whites.

Just as UNCF is totally focused on producing more black college graduates, producing more American college graduates needs to be the big national goal that President Obama articulates now and looks toward over the next four years. And he needs to approach college completion with the same energy, imagination and determination that he has brought to K-12 education. Producing college-ready high school graduates is important as a step -- but only a step -- toward what must be the national goal: making the U.S. the number-one country in the world in producing college graduates. And within that goal we must also ensure that low-income students of color are graduating at the same rates as wealthier students. Achieving that would be a proud legacy for Obama's second term.

For more than 40 years UNCF, with its national "a mind is a terrible thing to waste"® PSA campaign, has exhorted the nation to help black students go to college and graduate. Within weeks we will launch a dynamic new campaign featuring students and alumni who have attended college with UNCF support and urging Americans to invest in better futures by supporting UNCF and our students. We urge the same aspiration upon President Obama as he charts his course for the next four years. Today's students are tomorrow's teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs and civic leaders. Surely their futures are worth our investment. Today, like 40 years ago, "a mind is a terrible thing to waste"®... but a wonderful thing to invest in.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read the companion article by HuffPost's Joy Resmovits, click here. To read the companion blog post by Maria Voles Ferguson of the Center on Education Policy (CEP) at the George Washington University, click here. To read all the other posts in the series, click here.