Reach higher

The head of Michelle Obama’s college initiative says the US needs to regain its higher-ed lead

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Think of First Lady Michelle Obama as the “school counselor-in-chief” for the country, says Eric Waldo, director of her Reach Higher initiative.

IF YOU DON’T believe in the power of education to change lives, Michelle Obama wants to have a word with you. For the First Lady, the transformative power of education isn’t just a lofty idea, it’s her own story. Michelle Obama and her brother were the first in their family to attend college. They both landed at Princeton. She went on to Harvard Law School.

Though well-known for her anti-obesity initiative and work with military families, the First Lady decided she wanted to take on an education challenge as well. The result: Reach Higher, an initiative launched two years ago aimed at promoting completion by all Americans of a post-secondary education program – whether two- or four-year college, or a training program in a specific field.

The First Lady is using her considerable bully pulpit, in conjunction with a youth-focused social media campaign and partnerships with organizations across the country, to reinforce the message that everyone needs to some type of education or training beyond high school in today’s knowledge-based economy.

The US has fallen from first in the world to 12th in the percentage of its residents completing a post-secondary program. In 2009, in his first speech on education after taking office, President Obama declared that the US needs to regain its lead in this measure in order to be economically competitive — and to give all its citizens a shot at a fulfilling and economically-secure future.

Getting young people, especially those from families where no one has attended to college, on track to see higher education in their future has become a particular focus of Reach Higher. A lynchpin of the program is College Signing Day – which takes place today — in which thousands of people are going on social media to announce what college they have committed to attending this fall. (Check #ReachHigher and #BetterMakeRoom on Twitter for a flavor of what’s happening.)

While the First Lady is heading up the effort though everything from speaking events to making a college-promoting rap video with SNL’s Jay Pharoah, the guy overseeing the day-to-day White House operation of the program is Eric Waldo.

The 38-year-old Brown graduate landed nine years on the Obama campaign legal team (he also has law degree from the University of Chicago). Waldo went on to serve as deputy chief of staff to Education Secretary Arne Duncan before taking the reins as executive director of the Reach Higher initiative when it was launched in 2014.

Waldo was in Boston earlier this month to speak at event sponsored by the nonprofit Mass Insight Education. I sat down with him to for a few minutes before he hopped on a flight back to Washington. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

COMMONWEALTH: Why did the First Lady embrace the Reach Higher initiative on top of the other things she’s more known for publicly?

ERIC WALDO:  The First Lady took on Reach Higher because this is her story. She herself is a first-generation college graduate. Neither of her parents went to college, but they encouraged her and her brother Craig to go to college and so she saw the difference that going to college made in her life.

When the First Lady approached [then Education] Secretary Duncan and myself around talking about education initiatives it became really clear that talking about the president’s goal to increase post-secondary access and completion, especially for first-generation low-income kids, was what she wanted to tackle. You may know that a generation ago the United States led the world in terms of post-secondary completion. Now we’re about 12th among industrialized nations. So the First Lady really saw that as the president’s goal, and given her own story and her passion around that she wanted to speak directly to young people about the power of college. When we say college we mean a two-year degree, a four-year degree, or an industry-recognized certificate or credential. Some education past high school has to be the goal for every young person around the country.

CW: Why is it that the US has fallen in this ranking?

WALDO:  The truth is that other countries have been out educating us. They sort of have caught up. We’ve seen bigger investments from countries around the world. So now, especially given where we are in a global, knowledge-based economy, it’s incumbent on us to do even more. That’s why the president’s been clear about this — he made this announcement in his first speech around education, in 2009, that we need to lead the world again. That’s what all of our initiatives, from cradles to careers, are pushing for.  And the First Lady is taking her spot by really focusing on college access, and she’s talking directly to young high-school age people. I tell people, you can think of Reach Higher as the First  Lady as school counselor-in-chief for the entire country. She’s out there talking to young people, making sure that they know and understand the path they need to take.

IMG_8081CW: What is the role of states in this?

WALDO: Traditionally, education is more of a local issue. In terms of funding, the federal government is typically the minority Investor. We make up between 8 and 10 percent of spending. So we need to make sure that everyone around the country sees themselves as ambassadors for education. We need mayors to be involved in pushing for post-secondary completion, we need governors to be involved. And this can’t just be a classroom issue; it has to be an entire community issue. Part of what the First Lady does so well is make sure that people understand this at a visceral, cultural level. That’s what she’s managed to do with healthy eating, it’s what she’s doing with military-connected families. Around education one example of that is we partnered with College Humor and Saturday Night Live’s Jay Pharoah on the First Lady’s first rap song — a go-to-college rap video. It’s somewhat in fun and good humor, but that video was viewed 23 million times on Facebook. It led to a Twitter hashtag of #FLOTUSbars, where you had people around the country talking about the First Lady rapping, imagining their own lyrics talking about going to college. Things cannot just be on a policy level. We also have to make sure we’re changing the cultural conversation so we’re celebrating education the same way we celebrate athletes and celebrities.

CW: Is that increasingly a problem in our fast-paced, digital, short-attention-span culture?

WALDO:  It’s interesting you should say that. In October, we launched a campaign called Better Make Room. It’s an offshoot of Reach Higher, focused on the fact that these current young people, 14- to 19-year-olds, the proverbial Generation Z, have grown up as digital natives and do have these shorter attention spans and are used to multiple screens, used to interacting with us in different ways. We want to turn that “selfie culture” into another opportunity to celebrate education. So if you go to BetterMakeRoom.org you’ll see a place where students can go to not just post that selfie, but to talk about their college aspirations. When we launched we had a partnership with American Eagle and students who posted their college dreams had their face and picture and their college dream shown on the Jumbotron in Times Square for an entire month. We’ve had celebrities like Wale and Ciara and Tony Goldwyn telling the stories of incredible young people who are pursuing their education, using their voice to lift up those people. We think that this generation, with a campaign like Better Make Room, will have that sticky moment and be able to talk and be thoughtful about education.

CW: What are some of the most promising strategies or models that are playing out either at the district level or a state level?

WALDO: I always talk about Reach Higher in four key bucket areas: college and career exposure; financial aid and college affordability; college and career readiness on the academic side; and school counseling. In terms of college and career readiness, one example of promising practices is near-peer mentoring. We know that if you grow up in a family, in a school, or in a community where college isn’t the expectation it’s critical to get those students onto a college campus to meet someone from their neighborhood or from their community who can speak credibly and say, you can go to college. If I can be successful there, you can too. One of the first events the First Lady did for Reach Higher was to meet with GEAR UP students from the South Side of Chicago who came to visit Howard University. They do it on a yearly basis. They call it their trip to Mecca.  And they get to hear from students who are from their community who are now a few years older than them and say, OK, if you can make it, I can do it, too. The students help them understand and give them the confidence to see what’s possible. On the financial aid and college affordability side, we know that more students filling out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is critical to get students to actually apply and complete college. So we have places like the Austin Chamber of Commerce that have been having FAFSA contests and FAFSA nights. We have seen videos of FAFSA flash mobs and contests showing what students were doing to increase FAFSA knowledge in their schools. In terms of the college readiness/academic readiness bucket, we know some of the promising practices are around dual enrollment and early college high school – getting students exposed to a college-level class while they’re still in high school. Giving them the confidence, giving them the college credit, hopefully giving them that excitement and ability to believe, yeah, I can do it I can do a college class, I can be successful here. The last bucket is school counseling. On average [in the US], you have about one counselor for every 471 students. That’s about twice the recommended ratio from the national counseling associations. In California, it’s one counselor for every 1,000 students. If those counselors are really the Sherpas, the folks helping first-generation low-income families and all families understand the roadmap to college, we have to do better. So the First Lady has tried to hold national convenings where we’ve had commitments from nonprofits, foundations, and leaders around the country to increase and provide better pre-service college and career training for counselors. Right now, unfortunately, in too many school districts around the country, you have counselors being given bus duty, test proctoring, lunch proctoring. They’re not doing that college career training that they should be doing with students, especially our most vulnerable students.

IMG_8106CW: Is there a downside to getting more and more kids to make their way into higher end with all of the questions about whether all students are really prepared to do college work and complete a program? They can end up taking on debt and leaving without a degree, which puts them further in the hole then when they arrived.

WALDO: That’s why the academic side is so important, making sure students are ready on day one. When students show up to college on day one — and those are students who did all the right things, they finished high school, they applied to college, they showed up — too many of them have to take those remedial classes. Anywhere between 15 and 40 percent of entering public college freshmen around the country have to take remedial classes. We know, candidly, in today’s knowledge-based economy that education past high school has to be the goal for every young person. It’s unacceptable for us to say some people aren’t college material or can’t do it. If we are having them drop out of high school or not finish a post-secondary program then we are really condemning them to a life of poverty and social failure, which is not acceptable. We have to do more to create the systems to help students be successful, and if they’re not, we need to create better strategies around sharing data on remedial classes that are working at scale. The president hosted two college opportunity summits in 2014 and we got commitments from community colleges who are doing industry best practices to improve remediation rates for those basic English and math classes, so students were completing, were getting credit and not ending up in that scenario you described where they have debt and no degree.

CW: Isn’t the new mantra “to and through college” because just getting in to a higher ed program is not really the point if you don’t get through it and get a degree?

WALDO:  You’re absolutely correct. Our measurement of success has to be post-secondary completion. It’s not enough for them to enter, and all of us have to hold ourselves accountable that is the new normal. We can’t consider ourselves successful until those students have completed some sort of post-secondary credential. And we want that post-secondary credential to be meaningful in the job market. It’s got to be training that is going to have them ready for a job.

CW: Is there any early read on what the trend is on any of these goals over the last 7 or 8 years — during the president’s term in office?

WALDO:  The great news is we’ve actually seen some really wonderful historic increases, especially for minority students, for Hispanic students, in terms of enrollment gains. Candidly, we’re not done yet we need to make sure that they’re actually completing. But we see that trend line going in the right direction. A generation ago, we had a debate as to whether post-secondary education was necessary for all young people. We’re now saying that education past high school has to be the minimum threshold for every young person. That’s why the president’s free community college proposal, America’s College Promise, is getting so much traction at the state level where we are seeing governors around the country, Republican and Democrat, moving forward to make free college possible for every young person.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

CW:  Looking at the presidential campaign how would you rate the conversation so far in terms of candidates engaging on this issue, which obviously you and others think is one of the more crucial domestic issues facing us?

WALDO: I’ll defer to my old boss Arne Duncan. Before he left he had an article in Politico talking about the need to make education a center stage conversation for all candidates of all parties and all levels, the presidential, the gubernatorial, and at the local level. We need to hear more. It’s important to everyone, it’s important to the future of our country and the future of our economy.