New Orleans student held up as an example by the president

LSU and Tulane University are among 100 universities nationwide that made policy pledges Thursday at the White House to help expand college access and improve success rates for low-income and minority students.

LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander and Tulane President Scott Cowen both attended the White House events to join President Barack and Michelle Obama’s increased commitment to improve higher education access.

Alexander said LSU will focus on reaching out to students starting in sixth grade and to community and religious leaders in New Orleans and elsewhere to ensure students are getting on track and thinking about college early on.

LSU also will use the LSU Agricultural Center and its research stations in all 64 parishes to help get college information to young students, Alexander said.

“We spend a lot of time each day thinking and working on these issues, but the numbers don’t change that much,” Alexander said. “We’ve got to be much more innovative than we’ve been, and we have to be more aggressive utilizing the strength of an entire LSU and other universities and colleges in the state.”

The LSU commitment also involves focusing on students once they enroll.

“Once they’re in college, we’re going to keep intensifying all the efforts that we have to make sure they graduate and finish,” Alexander said.

“If they drop out, we’re going to track them and line up a path for them to get back into the institution so they know how close they were to finishing and what we can do to help them finish.”

While LSU enrollment numbers and graduation rates are on the rise, Alexander said the university still needs to make more gains in diversity levels.

LSU has an 11 percent African-American undergraduate enrollment compared with Louisiana’s 32 percent African-American population.

“We’ve got a definite problem with the African-American, male population,” Alexander said, adding it is a national issue. “We’ve got to delve into that and help create solutions.”

At Tulane, the university pledged to introduce a “freshman on-track” initiative targeting 10 nonselective high schools in New Orleans. The program would monitor student data and offer support for student behaviors connected to course completion, attendance and other key indicators of freshman success.

“Ensuring that a college education is accessible to all qualified students regardless of their financial circumstances is vital not only to the future of these students but to the promise of our country as a whole,” Cowen said in a prepared statement.

New Orleans native and college student Troy Simon was selected to introduce first lady Michelle Obama on Thursday.

Simon grew up in a poverty-stricken broken home. He did not learn to read until age 14, but he turned his life around with the support of teachers and programs like the Urban League College Track.

He graduated from the New Orleans East Science and Math Academy in 2012, and he is attending Bard College in New York on a full scholarship.

Ashamed of his illiteracy, Simon said he got in trouble and started fights in school, “anything I could to keep myself out of the classroom.

“I was shuffling between relatives. (Because of) the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, we lived in an abandoned building for a year,” Simon said. “My cousin and I tap danced in the French Quarter to earn money.”

At age 14, Simon said he saw his younger siblings heading down a similarly bad path and decided to set an example for them. Many teachers and mentors helped him get on track, he said.

“They showed me that I have an unbreakable support system,” Simon said. “They have taught me to live by the code that failure is inevitable, but quitting is not an option.”

The president and the first lady also praised Simon.

“That’s pretty powerful stuff and presented so eloquently,” Michelle Obama said. “I know yesterday I met Troy. He was nervous. I don’t really know why you were nervous. You’re pretty awesome.

“The fact is that right now we are missing out on so much potential because so many promising young people — young people like Troy, who have the talent it takes to succeed — simply don’t believe that college can be a reality for them,” she said. “Too many of them are falling through the cracks.”

President Obama said the goal is to “restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that’s at the heart of America: the notion that if you work hard, you can get ahead, you can improve your situation in life, you can make something of yourself.

“The same essential story that Troy so eloquently told about himself,” the president continued. “And the fact is it’s been getting harder to do that for a lot of people. It is harder for folks to start in one place and move up that ladder — and that was true long before the recession hit.”

The president and first lady both said they are the result of hard work and great educational opportunities, despite modest upbringings.

President Obama said his children and others coming from wealthy backgrounds have far too many advantages over the underserved. Those coming from low-income backgrounds need a lot more help, he said.

“We know that when it comes to college advising and preparing for tests like the ACT and the SAT, low-income kids are not on a level playing field. We call these standardized tests — they’re not standardized,” the president said.

“Malia and Sasha, by the time they’re in seventh grade at Sidwell School here, are already getting all kinds of advice and this and that and the other. The degree of preparation that many of our kids here are getting in advance of actually taking this test tilts the playing field. It’s not fair, and it’s gotten worse.”

But the president also warned college leaders that they need to be more responsible about ensuring that college tuition levels are affordable.

“We’re still going to have to make sure that rising tuition doesn’t price the middle class out of a college education,” he said. “The government is not going to be able to continually subsidize a system in which higher education inflation is going up faster than health care inflation.”