"[T]he fact is that right now, a small number of students are getting every advantage in the college admissions race, while millions of other students who are just as talented can't even begin to compete."
Mrs. Obama was making a pitch for expanded college counseling. She said too many students go through school without any real guidance on how to get into college or how to pay for it.
She described one world, where students "don't know what classes to take, or how to prepare for the SAT or the ACT. No one helps them decide which colleges to apply to. No one reviews the their applications. And plenty of kids have no idea that they're eligible for financial aid, so they assume they just can't afford college, and they don't even bother to apply.
"Now, that's one world. The other world is much smaller -- it's a world of schools where the question (for students) isn't ... whether they're going to college, but where. Kids in this world start preparing for college long before they even start high school. And from the first day of freshman year, they've been shepherded through every step of the process.
"They've got SAT and ACT prep courses, they take those tests again and again to improve their scores. Counselors have much smaller caseloads, and they walk kids through every deadline, they edit every draft of their essays."
In fact, the Obamas' own daughters go to such a school, but the first lady didn't mention that. However, she did joke that she and the president "wonder how we ever managed to get ourselves into college," since they didn't have the kind of counseling available to the privileged children of today. Nevertheless, both Obamas ended up at Ivy League schools.
Because "millions" of low-income students don't have the same advantages of the "small number" who are "shepherded through the process," colleges don't always get the very best students, Mrs. Obama said: "They're getting the students who can best afford to succeed in this system. And we are leaving behind so many bright, hungry, promise-filled kids."
According to the first lady, some of those kids are literally hungry.
She mentioned an "excellent student" from Albuquerque, New Mexico, named Roberta Gutierrez whose family was so poor, Roberta "had to skip lunch for a week" just to pay the $15 fee to take the PSAT in her sophomore year. Roberta did well on the test, and with the help of school counselors, she learned that she would be eligible for for thousands of dollars in scholarships. "And Roberta, of course, she was shocked," Mrs. Obama said.
Roberta's school now holds fundraisers to ensure that low-income students can take the PSAT for free. Meanwhile, Roberta went on to get a full scholarship and is planning to get a PhD in psychology.
Unless more students get quality school counseling, "We are depriving ourselves of so much human potential in this country -- from the scientific discoveries these kids might make, to the businesses that they might build, to the leadership that they might one day show in our communities." Mrs. Obama called that a "tragedy for our country."
She told the gathering of college presidents and school counselors that higher education is no longer just for students in the top quarter or the top half of the class -- "it has to be for everyone. So we are going to need a college-counseling system that reflects this new reality."