The Collegian
Saturday, December 10, 2022

Obamas speak about making college more accessible

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama hope that institutions of higher education can step up to help underprivileged youth facing challenges when applying to college, they said during the College Opportunity Summit last Thursday.

The Obamas spoke about their hopes of making higher education more accessible through student encouragement and eliminating extra costs.

"I know sometimes for those of you in university administrations, the perception may be that $100 application fees is not a big deal," President Obama said. "But for a lot of these students, that's enough of a barrier that they just don't end up applying."

Another change President Obama wanted to see was a more even playing field when it comes to standardized testing and college advising. He said many students have neither the preparation for such tests nor the proper advising needed to find the colleges they are right for.

Besides applying to the wrong schools, underprivileged students can also underestimate their own abilities in the classroom, the president said. Both the president and the first lady spoke of a lack of encouragement for underprivileged youth that account for them not applying, or applying to the wrong institution.

"But we must remember that education is a two-way bargain," Mrs. Obama said. "The person who has the most say over whether or not a student succeeds is the student him or herself."

The University of Richmond has been committed to helping underprivileged youth for years, according to school officials.

Juliette Landphair, dean of Westhampton College, echoed some of the Obamas' points and said Richmond already incorporated many of their ideas in the Richmond Promise, a strategic plan adopted in 2009.

"In 10 years of being dean here, the institutional commitment to access and affordability is very real and pretty profound," Landphair said. "I know that for our president [Ayers], it's a real personal passion of his."

Landphair said one of the biggest changes happening today in the U.S. is that minority populations that traditionally had a disproportionate amount of youth who didn't go to college are seeing an increase in college attendance. She added that the culture of expectation has a huge role in this change.

For youth who are not first-generation college students, there are many support mechanisms in place to help them succeed, as well as an expectation that they will attend college. However, she said many first generation students don't have this expectation placed on them, and without support or encouragement, they don't feel like they can apply to the colleges they want to.

"Where we see a gap in higher education," Landphair said, "is why qualified low-income kids don't apply to Harvard and Richmond in the way that you'd imagine they would."

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Landphair said one of the best parts about Richmond is the large endowment, which allows the school to be need-blind in admissions. Not all colleges have this luxury, she said.

She said trying to get first-generation students at the university is a big goal for Richmond and for President Ed Ayers.

"If we don't seriously look at the college going population over the next few decades, we could be in trouble," Landphair said, "and we're already starting to slip."

She said the U.S. is now ranked 21 out of 27 in advanced economies for high school completion rates. Without changes and awareness, it will only get worse, Landphair said.

Cindy Deffenbaugh, the director of financial Aid at Richmond, said in an email that besides being need-blind in its admissions process, the university also meets 100% of its students' demonstrated need. "Fewer than 1% of colleges and universities do both," she said.

Deffenbaugh also explained that Richmond grants do not need to be paid back, and that the school tries to minimize loans for students through work-study programs and scholarships.

"Richmond partners with just under twenty organizations that work with high school students who are typically first generation students and who are typically low income students," she said.

Both Deffenbaugh and Landphair spoke about "Richmond's Promise to Virginia," which provides full-time tuition plus room and board to Virginia residents as long as their total family income is less than $60,000.

Landphair said through this program, a student who is gifted and hard-working enough can attend the university, regardless of his or her financial background.

"We are very fortunate, and we are very committed to this," Landphair said.

Contact reporter Richard Arnett at

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