Reach Higher: Five Years of Building a College-Going Culture

Five years ago, we launched Reach Higher at a College Signing Day event in San Antonio, Texas. Former First Lady Michelle Obama, a first-generation college graduate herself, wanted to create an initiative that would inspire students to continue their education past high school. She wanted to change the national conversation around higher education and shine a spotlight on young people. And we’ve been doing just that.

The goals of Reach Higher were clear. We would use Mrs. Obama’s voice and convening authority to build a college-going culture to help the United States once again lead the world in college completion. This meant focusing on college and career exposure for students; helping students navigate financial aid and college affordability; helping students become academically prepared starting on day one of high school by taking rigorous college-prep classes; and supporting and elevating the school counseling profession, which is focused on helping students make the successful jump to post-secondary education.

One way that we do this is through College Signing Day, a celebration that uses May 1st, the traditional deadline for high school seniors to make a college selection, as an opportunity to truly lift up and celebrate students committing to pursue their education past high school, whether via a 2 year degree, a 4 year degree, a certificate or industry-recognized credential, as well as students entering the military. At rallies, in person, and online (selfies, please!), this has become an incredible tradition where hundreds of thousands of students participate and show us all what’s possible.   

In addition to College Signing Day, we host a Beating the Odds Summit during the summer to provide workshops to support college-bound students making the transition to college. We’ve also been able to expand our evidence-based text messaging program, Up Next, to reach 150,000 high school students and combat summer melt. The program gives them the nudges they need on key college access and success behaviors, like filling out the FAFSA, applying to college, and taking the SAT/ACT.

And we continue to look for ways to best support students through our work. We recently joined The Common Application, a non-profit membership organization dedicated to access, equity, and integrity in the college admission process. We share a mission of increasing access to higher education for all students and hope to accelerate progress toward our joint goals of inspiring a college-going culture, bringing joy to the admissions process, and supporting students in achieving their dreams. We believe our partnership can help more students understand and successfully navigate the process to apply to and earn a post-secondary degree.

The reason this work is so critical is that while we know a postsecondary credential is necessary to be successful in today’s global, knowledge-based economy, for too many, the doors of opportunity are shut. Today, only 9 percent of bottom income quartile students finish a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 77 percent of upper-income quartile students.  We have so much hard work ahead of us to truly make higher education access and attainment equitable. But with the continued work of committed school leaders, educators, counselors, and nonprofits, we can take moments like College Signing Day and use them to help ALL students see themselves as college material.