Dirks, Napolitano attend White House summit on higher education for low-income students

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At a White House summit Thursday, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and UC President Janet Napolitano joined about 100 college and university officials from across the country to discuss methods to improve access to higher education for low-income students.

Hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, the meeting consisted of a series of panel discussions in which leaders from institutions of higher education, nonprofit organizations and businesses examined issues currently preventing low-income students from attending college as well as possible remedies for the problem.

Currently, only 30 percent of low-income students across the nation enroll in college right after high school, and only 9 percent earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s, Obama said at the summit.

“The fact is that right now we are missing out on so much potential because so many promising young people … simply don’t believe that college can be a reality for them,” Michelle Obama said at the event. “Too many them are falling through the cracks.”

To tackle this issue, the White House asked each school and organization that attended — including UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and UC Merced — to submit pledges to expand college opportunities for low-income students.

In a press release Thursday, the UC Office of the President announced that Napolitano has promised to increase the number of transfers from community colleges to UC campuses, work with the CSU and community college systems to increase college awareness and encourage more high-achieving students to take the courses needed for college admission.

“The promise that anyone, no matter how humble their beginnings, can have a shot at a high-quality college education is at the heart of what makes this country strong — and it’s what the University of California is all about,” Napolitano said in the press release.

At the summit, Napolitano was also one of several speakers in a panel discussion that included David Coleman, president and CEO of College Board, and Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, speaking about how colleges and universities recruit low-income students.

Dirks, hoping to encourage high-achieving low-income students in the Bay Area, will allocate $500,000 of UC Berkeley funds to support programs that provide college advising and application assistance at underresourced high schools and community colleges in California, respectively. After a successful visit to Richmond High School last October, he has also pledged to work with local leaders and superintendents to visit 10 middle or high schools this year.

“It doesn’t matter how much you put things on your website, how many emails you send out — you sometimes have to go in person to get the message out,” Dirks said in an interview with The Daily Californian on Thursday.

Leaders at the summit also urged the government for more help in terms of funding, especially as budget cuts over the past years have caused schools like UC Berkeley to cut funding to programs that increase college opportunity.

Still, the university has been “ahead of the curve” in terms of recruiting and assisting low-income students, Dirks noted. Currently, 40 percent of UC students come from low-income households, eight times as many low-income students as all Ivy League schools combined, according to UCOP.

“Solutions at this point are difficult,” Dirks said. “The kind of work that needs to be done is recruiting students and ensuring they have enough support to follow through … (but) that’s something Berkeley has always done well on.”

Alison Fu is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @alisonfu_.