When we started “Reach Higher” out of the Obama White House, our goals were clear: First lady Michelle Obama would use her voice and convening authority to build a college-going culture to help the United States once again lead the world in college completion. To do that, we were going to have to build a movement. This meant focusing on college and career exposure for students, helping students navigate financial aid and college affordability, helping students become academically prepared beginning on day one of college by taking rigorous college-prep classes in high school, and supporting and elevating the school counseling profession, which is focused on helping students make the successful jump to postsecondary education.
We officially launched the Reach Higher initiative in May 2014 at a College Signing Day rally with more than 2,000 graduating high school seniors at the University of Texas, San Antonio. A year later, we launched “Better Make Room”—a social media campaign designed to authentically reach and amplify the voices of Generation Z students.
College Signing Day
Since the beginning, we at the Reach Higher initiative have looked for creative ways to celebrate and highlight the importance of higher education. To do so meaningfully, we knew we needed to transform culture and celebrate students authentically. Events like our College Signing Day—a day to celebrate students making the commitment to continue their education after high school, whether at a community college, a four-year university or college, an industry-recognized certificate program, or through the military—have become a national movement. Schools, colleges and universities, and organizations in all 50 states (along with the U.S. territories and countries around the world) shine a spotlight on their students by hosting an event to celebrate the power of higher education. College Signing Day makes students the stars of the show by having schools recognize their academic accomplishments in a way that has been traditionally reserved for athletes committing to colleges.
That one College Signing Day event in 2014 turned into 600 events in 2015, then 1,200 events in 2016, then 1,250 events in 2017, and then 2,250 events in 2018. This year, we’re proud to have had more than 3,000 registered College Signing Day events hosted by schools, colleges/universities, and organizations. Hundreds of thousands of students have participated and taken to social media to show their college pride, which is why our timelines and feeds were flooded with photos and messages of students declaring their plans using #CollegeSigningDay and #BetterMakeRoom. In fact, for the past several years, we’ve actually trended on social media and reached over a billion impressions. When we are living in a social media world, we believe that it’s critical to use these platforms to celebrate education the same way we celebrate something like the Super Bowl. It’s extremely powerful to see this movement continue to grow every year.
Beating the Odds
During the summer months, we work to combat “summer melt” by hosting a Beating the Odds Summit. Summer melt is a phenomenon describing students who graduate from high school with college plans and commitments but never show up on day one for college. Studies indicate that between 20 percent and nearly 50 percent of low-income high school grads who have college plans fail to matriculate in the year afterward. Our Beating the Odds Summit is an event created by Ms. Obama for first-generation students to help with overcoming major obstacles on their journey to college.
We wanted to provide first-generation college students with the tools and resources they needed as they worked to transition to college. Similar to College Signing Day, we make sure to livestream this event, to reach as many students as possible beyond those in the room. Ms. Obama shares her powerful story and advice as a first-gen college graduate, while students also hear from a panel of first-generation students sharing lessons learned from their current experience in college. We host workshops throughout the day and talk about the importance of internships, break down some of the college lingo (e.g., office hours, course catalog), and emphasize the importance of not being afraid to ask for help. We know that first-generation students often show up on campus and do not know how to navigate it. This convening is another important effort in demystifying college-going and college success for students who may not come from a college-going culture.
Getting the Word Out
We know that the way students are obtaining and retaining information is constantly changing. Our plan for Better Make Room was to leverage the power of social media by using platforms such as Snapchat and YouTube, while also working with celebrities and influencers to share important messages about higher education and financial aid.
We’ve had the now-former first lady Michelle Obama do everything from rapping about why students should go to college to discussing the importance of completing the FAFSA on talk shows to sharing her advice to first-gen students heading back to school on college campuses. We’ve worked with our celebrity partners and influencers to share inspirational messages on their personal social media accounts, and film videos highlighting key messages about the college-going process. Our goal is to reach these students where they are and have them hear messages from people who inspire them to pursue higher education.
We also work to lift up and share the inspiring stories of high school and college students all over the United States. We recognize and understand how important it is for students to see themselves as being college material, especially if they are the first in their family to pursue higher education. So, we created a Better Make Room takeover series, called #BMRtakeover, to share the powerful stories of everyday students along with those beating the odds. Their stories serve as inspiration for others who are thinking about college or working to complete their college degree. Every week, one high school or college student shares his or her story by writing a blog post and taking over our social media channels, sharing everything from words of advice to Snapchat sessions showing a day in their life at their school or on their college campus.
Continuing our goal of reaching students where they are, we created a free texting tool called UpNext that offers personalized support to high school seniors, rising college freshmen, and current college freshmen on all things college access. We send them text messages—basically small nudges—with information about the college search and application process, federal student aid, even student loan repayment information. We know that in order for a message to resonate with Generation Z, it must be personalized and authentic. So, we have current first-generation college students serve as peer advisers for every student. They help send out every text and answer these students’ questions. We also have advisers from the College Advising Corps to help answer student questions. This evidenced-based intervention helped us reach more than 150,000 students this past year alone.
In 2017, we created a Better Make Room Student Advisory Board to give our nation’s young people the opportunity to have a seat at our table. We ultimately selected a diverse group of high school and college students from all over the country to become ambassadors at their schools and on their campuses. Throughout their time as board members, these students hosted their own College Signing Day events, shared helpful FAFSA resources with their peers, started social media campaigns, and amplified the voices of students in their community. We’ve even had a couple of National Honor Society members serve on our board!
We know building a college-going culture is not possible without the important work being done by teachers, school counselors, and advisers in and outside of the classroom. You are the people working on the ground every day to make sure our nation’s young people have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. It’s not an easy job. We do our best to lift up and celebrate the school counseling profession by hosting professional development convenings and honoring the School Counselor of the Year with the American School Counselor Association. We believe that there cannot be an effective college-success strategy in place if we are not empowering school counselors—from elementary through high school—to show students a pathway to success.
While this obviously includes helping students and families understand how to navigate the college application and selection process, we know that educators and counselors alike are doing essential work around social-emotional learning, too. This includes helping students develop the grit and the growth mindset to bounce back and be successful in college and throughout their lives. To help disseminate these practices, we also create helpful toolkits, share the inspiring stories of educators, and impart important information for educators on our Reach Higher social media accounts.
Reach Higher and Better Make Room are still going strong! We announced in fall 2018 that we would be joining the Common App, a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to access, equity, and integrity in the college admission process. By uniting as one organization, we’ve been working on accelerating progress toward our joint goals of inspiring a college-going culture, bringing joy to the admissions process, and supporting students in achieving their dreams. For many students, the dream of higher education seems out of reach. We believe our partnership can help more students understand and successfully navigate the process to apply to colleges and universities and earn a postsecondary degree.
Young people are our future, but they’re also our present. As higher education professionals, it’s imperative that we make sure to incorporate student voices and understand the impact our decisions make on the students we serve. Together, we can continue to build this Reach Higher movement and ensure that every student can pursue their dreams of obtaining higher education.
Eric Waldo is executive director of Michelle Obama’s “Reach Higher” initiative and chief access and equity officer at The Common Application.