WASHINGTON — The University of Nebraska and Iowa State University were among more than 100 colleges that announced plans during a White House summit Thursday to expand access for low-income students.
“The overarching message of the day is that there are a lot of things that we can do — universities, not-for-profits, foundations, businesses and government ... to open the doors of higher education to more people and to help them succeed once they get there,” NU President J.B. Milliken said.
Milliken, who Wednesday accepted the job of chancellor of the City University of New York, spoke to The World-Herald at the summit after remarks by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. The event highlighted commitments by the colleges and 40 other organizations to help more young people not just attend college, but also graduate.
“If we as a nation can expand opportunity and reach out to those young people and help them not just go to college but graduate from college or university, it could have a transformative effect,” Obama said in his remarks. “There is this huge cohort of talent that we’re not tapping.”
The summit was part of Obama’s effort to demonstrate that he can advance an aggressive second-term agenda even in the face of congressional gridlock, through the use of executive orders and direct outreach to those involved in the pressing issues of the day.
Obama described as an “extraordinary achievement” the commitments that were announced at the summit.
“And we didn’t pass a bill to do it,” he said.
Besides Nebraska and Iowa State, Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln also outlined its efforts. Although Nebraska Wesleyan President Fred Ohles was unable to attend the summit, he said the university is forming a partnership with the Lincoln Public Schools and Southeast Community College to bring more low-income students into teaching careers.
Still in the planning stages, the program will involve two years of preparation in high school, a two-year associate degree and two years at Nebraska Wesleyan. It will defray the costs for some families and introduce more students to the teaching profession earlier, Ohles said.
“If we can get the attention of young people when they’re 15 or 16, together we can guide them on a pathway to bringing them back around into the very schools where they learned when they were children,” Ohles said.
At NU and Iowa State, plans include more scholarships for low-income students and new strategies to reach students in elementary and middle school — encouraging them to prepare themselves academically and letting them know that financial aid is available.
“We know from decades of research that lack of information about preparation for college and affordability of college is a huge deterrent,” Milliken said.
Milliken already makes a practice of writing to every eighth-grader in the state, as well as their counselors and principals. The letters go out in English and Spanish.
Now the university will expand those efforts to seventh- and ninth-graders, as well as seek new avenues to reach them that incorporate churches, Scout troops and other associations.
In addition, NU will make online classes available to more low-income, rural or first-generation students through its Nebraska Virtual Scholars program. The online program allows students who otherwise don’t have access to Advanced Placement or specific courses of interest at their high schools to take classes from the University of Nebraska High School.
“There aren’t that many high schools in Nebraska that offer AP courses,” Milliken said.
“This will be an opportunity anywhere in the state — doesn’t matter whether you’re in Omaha or Benkelman — you have access to AP courses online, you have access to dual-credit courses so you can have a head start when you get to college.”
More foundational courses will be added in middle school and high school to help with preparation gaps, according to NU. And the university plans to add a new administrative position — vice provost for P-16 initiatives — who will focus on increasing college enrollment rates.
Iowa State President Steven Leath has committed to dedicating $85 million raised in the next three years to financial aid for low-income students.
“We want to be sure that kids who really want to work hard and are capable of succeeding college have the opportunity,” Leach said. “There’s a great talent pool out there we don’t want to miss just because they happen to be born poor.”
ISU also plans to hire a staffer to help recruit the students and guide them through the financial aid process, as well as invest in early exposure to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes. Transition and transfer programs for Iowa community colleges students will also be strengthened at ISU.
Milliken said some of the statistics being tossed around at Thursday’s summit sounded familiar to him as experts talked about the need to reach out to first-generation students.
He said half the students at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, for example, represent the first generation in their families to attend college.
Milliken said the conversation has changed in the decade he has been at Nebraska.
“When I started at Nebraska 10 years ago, everything was about access,” he said. “Now, appropriately so, the conversation has shifted to the importance of access and completion.”
While his new gig in New York City might look a little different from the one he’s leaving, he said, the common element is a commitment to public education. It was Milliken’s work on improving access that CUNY trustees praised most in announcing their pick on Wednesday.
Milliken reiterated that it has been a privilege to lead the same institution that four generations of his family have attended, in a state where he has lived 40 of his 56 years.
“I’ll always be a Nebraskan,” Milliken said.