Michelle Obama is looking to start a new higher education initiative that seeks to increase the number of low-income students who pursue a college degree. In her new project, Mrs. Obama will work with the U.S. Education Department to help further President Obama's initiative to vault the United States from 12th to first in the world in the percentage of college graduates by 2020, writes Jennifer Steinhauer of The New York Times.
"I'm here today because I want you to know that my story can be your story," Mrs. Obama told students at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington. "The details might be a little different, but so many of the challenges and triumphs will be just the same."
Mrs. Obama said that students who want to be doctors, teachers, mechanics or software designers, should "do whatever it takes to continue your education after high school — whether that's going to a community college, or getting a technical certificate, or completing a training opportunity, or heading off to a four-year college."
According to Mrs. Obama's office, she will visit schools around the country and use social media to appeal to students, conveying the message that higher education is a door opening to a wider world.
Mrs. Obama is daughter of a pump worker at the City of Chicago Waterworks. She graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and then worked as an associate at the Sidley Austin law firm and a health care executive in Chicago. Her best-known initiative promotes healthy eating.
"When the year 2020 rolls around, nearly two-thirds of all jobs in this country are going to require some form of training beyond high school," Mrs. Obama said. "You all are going to need some form of higher education in order to build a good career for yourselves and be able to provide for your family."
The National Center for Education Statistics data shows that 52% of 2011 high school graduates from low-income families enrolled in college immediately after high school, a figure 30% points lower than the rate for students from high-income families.
Low-income students apply to, attend and finish college at far lower rates than their higher-income counterparts. Research shows that even among low-income students with high test scores and grades, few apply to the most selective American colleges.
Mrs. Obama, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, attended an academic magnet high school across town. In the past year in Chicago, she has led an exercise session with hundreds of city children and addressed 60 teenagers at the Urban Alliance, a group that offers professional job training and internships for underserved youth.
The education initiative will bring Mrs. Obama a step closer to the West Wing. But her staff said she would be more focused on young people than on policy, underscoring the practical limits of her power.
"The job of the first lady is both smaller and larger than the usual kind of career," said Dr. Allgor, the University of California professor. "You don't have a position or a paycheck. Yet we have this ironic development that we live in a time when women who occupy this office are more knowledgeable than ever about policy, yet we demand that they pull themselves away from that."