Congratulations, Class of Education Inequity


May 14, 2015

By Hajar Ahmed

More than a quarter of the commencement speeches given by original members of President Obama’s cabinet have been at colleges that pay no regard to socioeconomic diversity.

More than a quarter. Can you believe that?! These “engines of inequality” only represent 5% of all four-year colleges, yet get five times as much love from the Obama administration when it comes to commencement addresses.

Hajar Commencement Pic


Engines of inequality are colleges and universities with dismal rates of low-income student representation. In 2012, less than 16% of freshmen enrolled at these colleges received Pell Grants (grant aid that typically goes to students from families making approximately $50,000 a year or less). And to be clear, there are many talented, low-income students that many of these selective colleges could enroll: one in five top ACT test scorers (i.e. scored at the 90th percentile and higher) comes from a Pell-eligible family.

So why is President Obama’s cabinet congratulating as opposed to challenging these colleges that rank in the bottom 5% on working class student representation?

Many of these schools have big recognizable name brands. Private colleges like Yale, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. Public colleges like Penn State, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Delaware are on the list.

Related: College Ratings & Higher Ed Accountability (Part 1)

Here are some examples of where commencement speeches were given by original Obama administration cabinet members. For a full listing and to view the data up close, click here.


[Editor’s Note: Thank you to David Whitman, Secretary Arne Duncan’s former speech writer, for pointing out four colleges we had missed for Secretary Duncan: Xavier University of New Orleans, Fayetteville State University, Salish Kootenai College, and Sinte Gleska University. The chart has been updated to reflect those additions.]

Some of these schools, like the University of Michigan and the University of Notre Dame, have even been visited twice! Didn’t President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates know that there are more legacies at Notre Dame than the number of black and Latino students combined?

Related: NY Daily News | Op-Ed: Elite Colleges or Private Clubs?

Why can’t the Obama administration give out the political plum of a commencement address to universities that do a good job of enrolling and graduating students from low-income backgrounds instead of those that do a bad one?

Look at Dominican University in Chicago, Illinois, for example. It enrolls a whopping 60% of freshmen that receive Pell Grants and ranks at the top of its peer group for graduating students. President Obama should be delivering a commencement address at Dominican, not at Notre Dame for goodness sake.

Related: Leveraging DREAM Acts

We shouldn’t have our government leaders, Democratic Party leaders, preach about the fundamental issues of college access and affordability disparities that are taking this country by storm and then give a commencement speech at a college with an abominable 6.5% Pell enrollment rate (see Washington University at St. Louis) without saying a word about inequality.

We should expect more out of our leaders who should in turn expect more out of our universities.

Let’s celebrate the real winners in higher education; that’s wherever education equity lies.