Michelle Obama Says Colleges Must Serve the Under-Served: 'Just Look at Me'

By Susan Jones | January 17, 2014 | 10:02 AM EST

First lady Michelle Obama applauds college graduate Troy Simon as he introduces her at an event to expand college opportunity at the White House complex in Washington on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

(CNSNews.com) - First lady Michelle Obama says in the years ahead, she'll spend more and more of her time trying to get "underserved" young people into college.

Speaking at the White House on Thursday, she told a gathering of college administrators they must do more to encourage poor kids to enroll in their schools -- an effort that will benefit the schools as well:

"So believe me, these will be some of the best alumni you could possibly ask for, because after everything these kids will have overcome to get into college and get through college, believe me, they will have all the skills they need to run our businesses and our labs and to teach in our classrooms and to lead our communities.

"Just look at me...and the countless success stories from the organizations and schools represented here in this room. That's how we will win -- this country. We will win by tapping the full potential of all of our young people, so that we can grow our economy and move this country forward."

Mrs. Obama said her efforts on behalf of the nation's "underserved" students reflect the challenges she faced:

"See, the truth is that if Princeton hadn't found my brother as a basketball recruit and if I hadn't seen that he could succeed on a campus like that, never would have occurred to me to apply to that school, never. And I know that there are so many kids out there just like me, kids who have a world of potential, but maybe their parents never went to college, or maybe they've never been encouraged to believe they could succeed there."

Disadvantaged students -- those from poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods and dysfunctional families -- need help navigating the financial aid process, the college application process, and once they arrive at college, they need extra help fitting in, she said.

"It's our job to find those kids. It's our job to help them understand their potential and then get them enrolled in a college that can help them meet their needs."

Just getting into college is an accomplishment for people who have already overcome so much, Mrs. Obama said. But the work doesn't stop there:

"You're in a whole new world. You might have trouble making friends because you don't see any peers who come from a background like yours. You might be worried about paying for classes and food and room and board because you have never had to set your own budget before. You might be feeling guilty when you come home because Mom and Dad are wondering why you didn't get a job so you could help support their family. Those are the kinds of obstacles these kids are facing right from day one."

Just as colleges have support programs for students with eating disorders, learning disabilities and emotional problems, they must "direct that same energy and determination" to help poor students "face their unique challenges."

For example, she said the University of Minnesota plans to include financial literacy programs as part of its financial aid offerings to help students and their families manage the cost of college. She said Oregon Tech is "committing to set up a text message program so college advisers can connect more easily with students who need extra encouragement or academic support.

She also plugged programs that help students from disadvantaged backgrounds connect with others:

"And those were the types of resources that helped a kid like me not just survive but thrive at a school like Princeton. When I first arrived at school as a first-generation college student, I didn't know anyone on campus except my brother. I didn't know how to pick the right classes or find the right buildings. I didn't even bring the right size sheets for my dorm room bed. I didn't realize those beds were so long. So I was a little overwhelmed and a little isolated.

"But then I had an opportunity to participate in a three-week on-campus orientation program that helped me get a feel for the rhythm of college life, and once school started, I discovered the campus cultural center, the Third World Center, where I found students and staff who came from families and communities that were similar to my own. And they understood what I was going through. They were there to listen when I was feeling frustrated. They were there to answer the questions I was too embarrassed to ask anyone else."

'And we didn't pass a bill to do it...'

"My wife -- it's hard to speak after her," President Obama told the gathering to laughter and applause.

"We -- we were in the back and Gene Sperling, who did extraordinary work putting this whole summit together, said, everybody is so excited that Michelle's here. I said, well, what -- what about me? (Laughter.)"

Obama called the summit "a great example of how, without a whole bunch of new legislation, we can advance this agenda. We've got philanthropists and business leaders here. We've got leaders of innovative not-for-profits, We've got college presidents, from state universities and historically black colleges to ivy league universities and community colleges.

"And today more than a hundred 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."

Obama also repeated his intention "to make sure that rising tuition doesn't price the middle class out of a college education." He said the government will no long "continually subsidize" a system where higher education costs are rising faster than health care costs.

"So I've laid out a plan to bring down costs and make sure that students are not saddled with debt before they even start out in life...."

Last August, President Obama called for a college rating system that will reward schools -- through federal financial aid -- that meet the government's definition of what a good school should be.