College & Workforce Readiness

Michelle Obama’s ‘Reach Higher’ Initiative Merges With the Common Application

By Catherine Gewertz — September 27, 2018 2 min read
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The Common Application, an online platform a million students use to apply to college, has acquired “Reach Higher,” the college-encouragement campaign that Michelle Obama launched when she was the first lady.

The leaders of “Reach Higher” and the Common Application announced the acquisition here Thursday during the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The two organizations hope to use the outreach expertise of “Reach Higher” to bring more students into the college fold.

The move takes effect on Jan. 1, when “Reach Higher” and a suite of related college-access programs that originated in the Obama White House will become initiatives of the organization widely known as “the Common App.”

“Reach Higher” was a central piece of Michelle Obama’s work during her White House years. A public-awareness campaign that urges young people to pursue postsecondary studies, it featured her in public appearances, social media posts, and even rap videos, promoting college as a smart option.

When the initiative joins forces with the Common Application, it can “build demand and help inspire confidence in young people” that they can go to college, as it always has, but it can add “a concrete step” for students—connecting them to the Common App’s network of 800 colleges and universities, Eric Waldo, Reach Higher’s executive director, told Education Week in an interview here.

After the Obamas left the White House, “Reach Higher” moved to Civic Nation, a nonprofit that works on improving education and civic engagement. Michelle Obama has stayed active in that work, including appearances at the annual spring “College Signing Day,” and will continue to do so, as a “Reach Higher” advisory board member, when the program moves to the Common App, officials said.

Other programs related to “Reach Higher” that had also moved to Civic Nation will now migrate to the Common Application along with “Reach Higher.” They include “Better Make Room,” a campaign that publicizes the stories of high school and college students; “Up Next,” which uses text messages to “nudge” young people into completing key college tasks, such as signing up for admissions exams or applying for financial aid; “College Signing Day,” which celebrates students’ college choices, and “Beating the Odds,” which hosts summits of aspiring college students.

Common Application CEO Jenny Rickard said in an interview here that she hopes the two groups can blend their expertise to solve some stubborn problems, such as why some students set up Common App accounts and never submit applications. Perhaps the “Up Next” text-nudging system could be harnessed to reach out to those students and get them to move through the application process, Rickard said.

Reach Higher will also continue to support school counselors as it moves to the Common App. Obama was a vocal and ardent cheerleader for the counselors during her White House years, and made the symbolic choice to give her emotional farewell address as first lady at a meeting of counselors.

“Reach Higher” will continue to host summits that train counselors on a variety of topics, such as building good pipelines to career-and-technical education for students, Waldo said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.