A Modest Idea for the Obama Administration


April 28, 2015

By Michael Dannenberg

Can we please stop handing out political plums to colleges with terrible success rates? Recently, Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz were called out for agreeing to give speeches at Liberty University, a school that produces terrible results for low-income and minority students.  This week, there’s another example of influential leaders ignoring the quality of their chosen higher education venue.

2011 Heisman Trophy Winner Portraits

The 2015 NFL Draft will be held Thursday at Roosevelt University. For 256 college students and pro football hopefuls, it will be a dream come true when Commissioner Roger Goodell announces their names in Roosevelt’s Auditorium Theatre. But Roosevelt’s failures are a nightmare for most of its students. As we’ve described previously, only four in 10 first-time, full-time Roosevelt students can expect to hear their names called in Auditorium Theatre on graduation day. Only one in 10 of Roosevelt’s black students will walk that stage within six years of initial enrollment. Among similar colleges serving similar students, Roosevelt is one of the worst — ranking near the bottom of its peer group every single year for the past ten years.

Building on our previous recommendation that President Obama give a commencement address at a college like Florida State, here’s a little idea for the entire Obama administration to do what the NFL didn’t: reward schools that make “a meaningful commitment to diversity.”

What does a “meaningful commitment to diversity” entail? In higher education, it requires getting more minority and working class students not just into colleges where they are underrepresented, but also through them — to degree completion.

So while it may be too late this year, for next year, the White House should direct all administration officials to give commencement addresses only at schools that are doing a good job or improving at making a meaningful commitment to diversity – as reflected by college access, affordability, and success metrics. More importantly, it should direct administration officials to talk to graduates and their families about the ongoing work of ensuring a meaningful commitment to diversity beyond the schoolhouse door.

For years, the civil rights movement has been making the difficult transition from focusing on equal access to equal access and equal quality. In education – both in K-12 and higher education – that has led to some tension with traditional allies. But the moral mandate of the civil rights movement to pursue equal access and quality in education and beyond remains. In the waning days of his Presidency, Barack Obama should make sure his staff makes that clear in word and deed.

Each year, scores of high-ranking political appointees are asked to give commencement addresses at various colleges and universities. Cabinet officials and subcabinet officials typically give more than one.  So we’re talking about upwards of 100 commencement addresses to exponentially more students and families. These appearances are neither coordinated, nor used in service of a single strategic purpose or message. They should be.

Heck, Chicago’s city colleges might be among the beneficiaries. Thanks to Mayor Emmanuel, every student who graduates from a Chicago public school with a 3.0 GPA or higher and has a solid ACT score is eligible for free tuition, fees, and books at one of the city’s community colleges. We only hope that they and the city’s schools work as hard to graduate students as they do to enroll them.

Maybe a commencement address from President Obama himself at one of those Chicago city colleges will be an added reward.