01/25/2013 12:19 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

First Generation Students

We have a tradition at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, a tradition that's dear to my heart. In our spring commencement, I ask the graduates who are the first in their families to achieve a college degree to stand. And each year, the vast majority of our graduates are among those standing.

There are those in higher education and in government who would close the doors of opportunity to those first generation graduates because their test scores were not high enough or their high school grade points were too low. Many of them have to be remediated before they can take standard college curricula. Many come from broken homes without strong parental influence or they grow up in an environment where education is not valued.

I understand the need for academic rigor in higher education, but as the CEO of one of the last open admission universities in our region, I strongly believe that academic excellence and opportunity don't have to be mutually exclusive.

For more than a century, UAM has provided educational opportunities for students who had no other college option. When I attend alumni functions and speak to successful doctors, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs and business men and women, I hear the same story over and over -- if not for UAM, they would have had no chance to attain a college degree, no chance to pursue their dreams.

We have challenges with a policy of open admissions. Admitting students regardless of their test scores does not guarantee success. Many, in fact, will fail, which is why our retention and graduation rates are lower than institutions with selective admissions policies. But we measure success differently than others. To me, success means watching the seventh of 11 children from a shotgun house in the Delta flourish in an environment designed to nurture and encourage academic achievement. Rather than consign that young person to a life of menial labor, a dead-end job, or living off government support, we are providing an opportunity to break a cycle of poverty and depravation that has a stranglehold on so many.

I keep coming back to the word opportunity for a reason. Three years ago, UAM observed its 100th birthday. We adopted the slogan "Celebrating a Century of Opportunity," but it was more than a slogan. It represents our mission and our legacy. We must not close the doors of educational opportunity to those who have to struggle to attain the things many of us take for granted.

Those first-generation graduates who stand each spring -- with their proud parents and family watching -- represent what's best about this country. At a time when a young African-American from a broken home can grow up to be President of the United States, I believe it is imperative that we not limit higher education to the elite. We may be closing the door on tomorrow's leaders.