Cheyney University President Attends College Opportunity Summit at the White House

January 17, 2014

Cheyney University President Michelle R. Howard-Vital spent January 16th at the White House, invited there by the Obama Administration to participate in an education summit aimed at helping more low-income students enroll in college despite increasing tuition and successfully graduate.

Dr. Howard-Vital was among 100 college presidents, business executives and non-profit chiefs to attend the all-day affair to collaborate and hear what President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama had to say about the important issue. The opportunity summit comes at a time when Mr. Obama's education agenda has basically stalled in Congress due to battles between a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican majority in the House.  Thinking outside-of-the-box, however, the President will try to advance his policies via a combination of executive action and through the leadership of stakeholders like Dr. Howard-Vital.

Each stakeholder was asked to promise action in at least one of four areas: connecting more low-income students to the college that best suits them, increasing the pool of low-income students preparing for college while they are in middle or high school, increasing help for low-income students preparing for SAT or ACT college entrance exams, and helping academically under-prepared students while in college so that they graduate.  

With 90% of Cheyney University's population classified as low-income students and the average family income less than $40,000, President Howard-Vital chose the fourth area to concentrate on, promising to expand and tweak the University's learning communities model, which has been an evolving experiment, and expand it across the entire campus.  By increasing the number and types of learning communities to encompass as many first year students initially, increasing their effectiveness by tracking assessment measures and employing a sense of community by getting faculty and staff to academically and socially engage with students, the Vital Administration expects to increase academic success with support for students, increase retention and completion rates, and increase participation by faculty and staff in supporting the concepts of learning communities.

"The vast majority of the students who attend Cheyney University are first generation students who have not had the support from K-12 or from their families to help them transition effectively into a college/university environment," President Vital said. "In order to assist this transition, Cheyney University's University College staff work with first and second year students to help support their transitions emotionally and socially," she explained, "so that they will be successful in upper-division courses, graduate school, and in the workplace. In addition to the academic support, tutoring, and so forth, there has been a realization that more is needed to help students maintain the confidence needed to succeed."  Howard-Vital also said that "Cheyney University seeks to expand its Honors Program, offer Merit Scholarships, and work with families to help them afford the gap between financial aid and the cost to attend college."

As a result of the White House Summit, more than 40 non-profit organizations, foundations and companies have reportedly pledged to finance related steps to aid low-income students, such as waiving fees for college applications or mentoring disadvantaged students preparing for college.

"Education is the key to success for so many kids," acknowledged First Lady Michelle Obama when she took to the podium. As a first-generation college student herself, she said, she didn't know how to navigate much of anything once she arrived on Princeton University's campus. A caring network of supporters, she said, helped her graduate at the top of her class, go on to law school, and end up as First Lady.

At the summit, Dr. Howard-Vital sat right next to the President of Yale University and dialogued with him and other college presidents. "Like myself and the First Lady," she said, "many of the college presidents admitted that they were the first in their families to attend college and that it was an inspirational person or university group that helped them make the transition from a smart, first-generation student to a college president." Howard-Vital recalls that, although she graduated sixth in her high school class, she did not think about attending an elite institution because "I knew my family could not afford it." When the University of Chicago offered her a full scholarship, however, "that changed everything for me," she insisted.  

Statistics show that only 30% of low-income students enroll in college right after high school today, and by their mid-20s, only nine percent earn a bachelor’s degree.

"We want to make sure more young people have the chance to earn a higher education. And in the 21st century economy, we all understand it’s never been more important,"  President Barack Obama told summit participants. "We’ve got philanthropists and business leaders here. We’ve got leaders of innovative non-for-profits. We’ve got college presidents from state universities and historically black colleges to Ivy League universities and community colleges," President Obama said.  "And today, more than 100 colleges and 40 organizations are announcing new commitments to help more young people not only go to, but graduate from college. And that’s an extraordinary accomplishment, and we didn’t pass a bill to do it."