Guest column: Reality check for White House on college affordability

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams

The White House needs a big dose of reality when it comes to the needs of low-income college students.

On Jan. 16, the White House held a summit on college access. As a community college professor working with low-income students every day, I have a few ground-level suggestions for President Obama and his team.

First, talk to actual students.

At the forum, which touted attendance by more than 100 “college and university presidents and leaders from non profits, foundations, state governments and the private sector,” there were few actual students present. Seems to me like the people being talked about should be well represented in the room.

Second, use technology like you mean it.

Though the by-invitation-only summit was live-streamed from the White House, there was no way for the general public to participate. If a national, well-publicized YouTube town meeting is good enough for a presidential campaign, it’s good enough for something as important as figuring out how to increase our appallingly low college success rate.

Third, find more people whose stories mirror Michelle Obama’s. She climbed out of Chicago’s South Side to the Ivy League and a career in law. The White House needs to hear from countless people like her and like me — who crawled out of the South Bronx to an elite education and a career as a writer and professor — and broadcast those stories to the millions of low-income children who have no idea it’s possible to live a life different from the one they’re stuck in.

Fourth, focus less on the individual student and more on her entire family. The White House should encourage colleges to treat recruiting more like scouting. The admissions representative should develop relationships with prospective students and their families over several years, not just during a recruitment day in the high school gym.

Low-income students of color are under tremendous pressure to contribute to the family’s livelihood, and to many it makes no sense to go to college, where they may end up in debt. That is a huge cultural hurdle that must be overcome slowly by establishing a comfort level with parents, siblings and grandparents. In the case of Latinas, this is especially critical.

Lastly, tuition should be free for low-income students. Right now, a public four-year education costs about $18,000 on average; a private one costs about $41,000, according to the College Board. If the federal poverty line is $23,550 for a family of four, no promising student whose family falls under that income should have to pay for college.

It’s time to get real, creating solutions that will change the course of millions of lives, and our country along the way.

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams teaches writing at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury, Conn.