It's easy to talk about the importance of college. But some folks really walk the walk.
I had the thrilling opportunity to meet some of them a few years ago, when I joined the college signing day at YES Prep in Houston, Texas. As I told the audience that day, I was moved nearly to tears as students announced their college plans to a cheering stadium, and signed letters committing to their college. It was the kind of unbridled enthusiasm we usually reserve for sporting events – and yet it was also like a family reunion. It was overwhelming.
Today, First Lady Michelle Obama will take that experience to a whole new level when she gives a name to her college access initiative, Reach Higher, at the culmination of a city-wide college celebration in San Antonio, Texas. All week, the entire city has been focused on the vital importance of getting a college degree. Today, the First Lady will witness an auditorium full of high school seniors committing to entering and completing college.
Their embrace of that goal is part of changing our country's future. A generation ago, our young people were first in the world in their college completion rate – but now we are 12th in the world. President Obama has set a goal of reclaiming our world leadership.
And we are seeing some really important progress. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of announcing our new cohort high school graduation rate, which at 80% is the highest in US history. And last month, we learned that attainment of college degrees last year saw its biggest rise since 2008.
These improvements are badly needed and long in coming. African-American, Latino and low-income students have helped to drive many recent increases in high school graduation and college-going – but they still don't have the same opportunities, or the same success rates, as many other students. The need for equitable opportunities has always been pressing – but is even more so as we project that this fall, America's public school students will for the first time be mostly nonwhite. We are working hard to ensure stronger opportunities – but we have a long way to go.
And college matters in a way that it never has before – because without some postsecondary education, there are very few opportunities in today's knowledge-based economy.
The First Lady understands this at her core. Fighting for and committing to getting a great education isn't some intellectual exercise for the First Lady. She lived this experience on Chicago's South Side. Her parents didn't have a college education, but they pushed her and her brother Craig to work hard in high school and concentrate on getting a college degree. She pushed herself to study as hard as possible – benefiting from the encouragement of those who supported her, and pushing past the doubts of those who didn't.
So when students hear from her, when she tells her own story of perseverance in high school, in college, in law school – they listen. Because they understand that she's not that different from any of them. All those struggles, whether it was picking classes, navigating student loans, or even just knowing the right sized sheets to bring that first day of college – she's faced them, persevered, and been successful thanks to getting a great education. And she wants to make sure others understand how to navigate that path.
So I feel really lucky to have her as a better partner to inspire students across the country and push them to reach higher and commit to postsecondary education. In San Antonio, she won't just be celebrating the importance of the college-going culture in one city, but the college-going culture she's trying to create across the country. Her story, her candor, and her energy ensure that young people across this country will reach higher – and will achieve more.
Follow Sec. Arne Duncan on Twitter: @ArneDuncan.