The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, 1/16/14, 7:26 PM ET

FLOTUS: 'We all have to step up' on education

Michelle Obama joined her husband Thursday to unveil a new education plan, which aims to make the U.S. the world’s leader in producing college graduates.

Michelle Obama wants to expand access to higher education

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At a higher education summit hosted by the White House Thursday, first lady Michelle Obama got personal with the university presidents and students in attendance, and told them how a national commitment of increasing opportunities for disadvantaged students supplemented her own education.

A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, the first lady used her own story to highlight the power of education. 

“The truth is that if Princeton hadn’t found my brother as a basketball recruit, and if I hadn’t seen that he could succeed on a campus like that, it never would have occurred to me to apply to that school — never,” the first lady said. “And I know that there are so many kids out there just like me — kids who have a world of potential, but maybe their parents never went to college or maybe they’ve never been encouraged to believe they could succeed there.”

Michelle Obama urged college and university presidents to widen college opportunities for low-income, underserved students like the young man who introduced the first lady, Troy Simon.

Simon, a sophomore at Bard College, underscored the president and the first lady’s call to expanding access to education by sharing his powerful story. Simon’s family in New Orleans lived through the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Illiterate until he was twelve, Simon avoided the classroom until he realized a higher calling. 

“At 14, I saw my brothers and sisters headed down the same path as me so I knew that I had to make a better example for them,” Simon said at the White House. “I decided to change my life… I enrolled in the academic support program called the Urban League College Track, which helped me academically and socially. From that moment on, College Track helped me discover myself through writing. College Track has gotten me to college. And college track is still getting me to college, through college.”

“I know that it took me to be committed to education. I also know that it took others to help me. I couldn’t do it alone. No doubt,” said Simon.

Explaining the gap between education and income inequality, President Obama announced his education initiative to more than 100 leaders in higher education as a part of his economic agenda of boosting college completion rates in the United States and ensuring “there are new ladders of opportunity to the middle class.”

“We still have a long way to go to unlock the doors of higher education to more Americans and especially lower-income Americans,” the president said. ‘”We’re going to have to make sure they’re ready to walk through those doors.”

“Today’s event isn’t about me but it’s about every kid in the U.S. ensuring that they will succeed and reach their intellectual potential,” the Bard College student said, stressing the education push.  

Harvard sophomore Justin Porter, who was profiled by The New York Times last summer, spoke about the hardships of getting into elite colleges and universities for low-income African Americans. Porter discussed the unique challenges he faced before entering Harvard and the lack of support and preparation he felt at a competitive university. 

Porter joined MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell last August and discussed how he considered deferring his college acceptance to get a job to help his single mother out at home. But his mother insisted he attend that fall, adding that his acceptance was her biggest accomplishment as a parent.

“What I was grappling with was my trajectory going in a direction that was opposite of that, of the people who I love and have been around for my entire life,” Porter said on The Last Word. “And it was – it was me like going full steam ahead on one other side, and I just – I couldn’t help but look like in the mirror and think about what are the counterfactuals, you know, what are the – what are the possibilities that I’m excluding myself from and the people that I love from.”

The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, 8/6/13, 10:34 PM ET

Low-income students reflect on time at Ivy League schools

Yale sophomore Travis Reginal and Harvard sophomore Justin Porter join MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell to discuss the challenges of being  low-income students at Ivy League universities.

Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama wants to expand access to higher education

Updated