Mr. Wrighton goes to Washington

| Staff Reporter

Courtesy of Mark Wrighton

Chancellor Mark Wrighton poses outside the White House prior to a summit with President Barack Obama and other higher education leaders on Jan. 16. Wrighton traveled to Washington, D.C., for two days for the gathering.

Though he was disappointed President Barack Obama didn’t find time to shake his hand, Chancellor Mark Wrighton’s audience with the leader of the free world was not a complete loss.

Wrighton traveled to Washington for the White House’s College Opportunity Summit earlier this month, where he networked with other college administrators to deliberate on how to make college more affordable and accessible.

The message was featured prominently in the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday.

Michelle and Barack Obama hosted about 85 college and university administrators at the Jan. 16 summit to urge schools to reassess the ways in which entry to higher education is handled. And although Wrighton didn’t get to nab a picture with President Obama, he settled for lending his iPhone to a stranger to get a photo of himself in front of the White House.

“We’ve got to re-commit ourselves to helping these kids pursue their education,” Michelle Obama said to the summit attendees. “It’s a challenge for folks like us, who are committed to helping them succeed. And make no mistake about it, that is our mission—not simply giving speeches or raising money or hosting conferences, but to take real, meaningful action that will help our young people get into college, and more importantly, actually get their degree.”

Wrighton is looking to improve the state of higher education in St. Louis by getting Washington University involved with the National College Advising Corps (NCAC). As a part of the program, recent University alumni would mentor students from low-performance high schools, helping them through the college admissions process.

“We believe that if our community is stronger, we’ll be stronger. And the key to a stronger community is a highly educated community,” Wrighton said.

At the summit, around 150 colleges, universities and state systems made new commitments to making progress on the challenge of broadening opportunities for access to higher education. Wrighton noted that many students are turned off by the University’s high tuition before they learn about the support and financial aid universities are willing to offer.

In Washington University’s commitment statement, the University committed to partnering with the NCAC and offering more financial aid.

“[E]fforts Washington University is undertaking include partnering with ‘Say Yes to Education,’ launching the Washington University Pre-College Program to help talented students from challenging circumstances prepare for success in college, and expanding its sponsorship of charter schools in the City of St. Louis, including a planned expansion to five Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) Charter Schools over time,” the commitment stated.

Wrighton emphasized that Washington University is making a strong effort to comply with the president’s desire for more affordable higher education through fundraising efforts to build up financial aid packages.

“People talk about the rise in the cost, but for many people, college at an institution like this has always been expensive. I visited a few years back with an alumnus who was 90 at that time, and he was explaining that the tuition…[was about] a few hundred dollars each semester…but he couldn’t have attended here without scholarship support. And people who had that experience and know what it meant to them are people who are receptive and who we ask to help others,” Wrighton said.

During both the State of the Union address and the College Opportunity Summit, President Obama’s central message about higher education centered around the idea of making it more accessible and affordable.

In his State of the Union address, the president said, “The problem is we’re still not reaching enough kids, and we’re not reaching them in time. That has to change.”

“We still have a long way to go to unlock the doors of higher education to more Americans and especially lower-income Americans. We’re going to have to make sure they’re ready to walk through those doors,” Obama said at the summit. “So if we as a nation can expand opportunity and reach out to those young people and help them not just go to college but graduate from college or university, it could have a transformative effect. There is this huge cohort of talent that we’re not tapping.”

Wrighton is a strong proponent of this idea, especially after having such a rich educational experience himself.

“I’d like to think the educational experience has been a big factor in making…lives better, not just financially, but also more rewarding. My own experience is one that is easy to relate to in connection to this. My parents didn’t go to college. I went to a large, public university, and I had to take a loan to go to even a public university with a modest tuition compared to, let’s say, the private [universities] like Emory [University] or [Vanderbilt University] or Wash. U.,” Wrighton said.

“I think this is not a new issue…I am an example of a person who illustrates that you don’t have to go to a small, private college or private university like ours to do well in life. I had a great educational experience…what we need is, in effect, a full-court press so that every talented student has the opportunity that I had,” he added.

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