Ricardo Romo has seen a lot of big things happen at the University of Texas at San Antonio campus in the 15 years he’s been its president.
Once a commuter school, the university has opened dorms, its student population has grown to 30,000 and it has been moving up in the rankings as a top research university.
But he could hardly contain his excitement about what was planned for Friday. “We’re extremely excited to have the first lady Michelle Obama at UTSA. This is unprecedented. The kids are all excited,” Romo said in a phone call Thursday evening.
The first lady’s visit was for what is billed as Signing Day, when hundreds of San Antonio’s high school students head to the UTSA campus sporting the T-shirts and gear of the college or university they plan to attend in the fall to officially declare their college choice.
Romo said the act is intended to mimick signing days of high school athletes when they sign letters of intent with college teams but instead celebrates the academic plans of the students.
This is the fourth time the majority Latino city has held the event as part of Destination College, a week of free activities begun by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to promote the city as a college-going town and to drive up young people’s interest in pursuing higher education after high school.
“I’m very passionate about education,” said Romo, who is Mexican American and a native of San Antonio. “I don’t think there’s anything more important than committing ourselves to young people.”
Michelle Obama’s visit is intended to promote President Barack Obama’s goal, dubbed the North Star Education Goal, of increasing the proportion of college graduates in the U.S. so by 2020, the U.S. once again leads the world in that statistic.
The nation has dropped to 12th in the world in the number of people from 25 to 34 with college degrees.
“You hear the president talking a lot about growing the economy for the middle class out, making sure we’re creating ladders of opportunity for folks that are fighting to get to the middle class. All of that work, education is at the center of it,” Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, said Thursday in a White House briefing.
The nation celebrated a milestone Monday when it was announced it has a more than 80 percent graduation rate. Dramatic gains by Latino and African American students helped the U.S. meet that milestone. Meanwhile the Hispanic dropout rate has been cut in half to about 14 percent and the African American dropout rate has fallen too.
Both achievements are good news on the education front said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, but he said the push needs to continue because the goal is not to only graduate students from high school but to make sure young people go on to some form of higher education.
“We think the next school year might be the first in the nation’s history where a majority of students will come from the minority community,” Duncan said. “It’s a tipping point, so anyone who thinks that improving black graduation rates or improving Hispanic dropout rates is an issue just for those communities, doesn’t understand the national significance of continuing to drive those things."
Hispanics surpassed whites in college enrollment rates in 2012, but are less likely than their white counterparts to attend four-year universities or attend selective colleges, according to Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends Project.
At UTSA, the Hispanic enrollment reached about 50 percent last year, Romo said, although he said the share of Latino attendance has only improved slightly over the years.
“There are many reasons we want them to go to college. Our next generation of leaders are going to have to be well educated,” Romo said. He pointed out that the San Antonio’s mayor, who is Mexican-American, attended Stanford and Harvard Law School.
“Sixty-six percent of the new jobs you get in the next 10 years will require the skills you get in college,” Romo said.