At New Orleans charter schools, even students in the primary grades sometimes start the day with rousing chants professing their commitment to college. “This is the way, hey!/ We start the day, hey!/ We get the knowledge, hey!/To go to college!” kids shout. During several years writing about the remaking of the school system since Hurricane Katrina, I have heard high school teachers remind students to wash their hands before leaving the restroom because otherwise they might get sick, which might cause them to miss class, which would leave them less prepared for college. College flags and banners coat the walls and ceilings of schools across the city. College talk infuses the lessons of even the youngest learners. College trips expose older kids to campuses around the country.
While particularly strong in New Orleans, the “college-for-all” movement has swept the nation over the past decade, with education reformers in different cities embracing the notion that sending more low-income students to and through college should be America’s primary antipoverty strategy. In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama echoed that theme when he asked every American to pledge to attend at least one year of college. “We will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”