In his State of the Union Address, President Barak Obama cited the success of his "College Opportunity Summit where, already, 150 universities, businesses and nonprofits have made concrete commitments to reduce inequality in access to higher education -- and help every hardworking kid go to college and succeed when they get to campus."

This work is already being done by hundreds of private liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities, at places such as like Saint Mary's College, where nearly 30 percent of our students are eligible for Pell grants, 38 percent are first in their families to attend college, and 86 percent receive financial aid, most of it from the college.

The commitments have long been practiced here: increased financial aid, robust peer-mentoring programs, pre-college programs for first generation and low-income students, partnerships with community-based organizations, targeted academic support services and high-impact practices such as undergraduate research, study abroad, service learning and internships.

Our own efforts have yielded dramatic results, including a rise in overall four-year graduation rates from 49 percent in 2009 to more than 60 percent in 2013, and achievement among low-income and first-generation students close to or exceeding the overall rate.


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One of our highest achieving subgroups, our Hispanic students, now comprise 25 percent of our traditional undergraduate student population and have achieved a 65 percent four-year graduation rate, while at the same time are more likely to hold jobs and contribute financially to their families while in college than their white peers. In fact, financial pressures are the most cited reasons for student attrition at Saint Mary's.

At the same time the president affirms the need for "ladders of opportunity," "access to a world-class education" and reduction of student debt, he offers little support for higher education.

He seems to recognize that affluent families have resources unimaginable to low-income and first-generation-to-college students: lifetimes of supplemental education such as private tutors, small classes, test preparation programs, academic counseling and living environments conducive to study and reflection.

If families don't have access to a rich learning environment before college, it must be encountered in college to close the inequality gaps. High impact educational practices coupled with small classes, highly qualified and full-time faculty, and extensive student support systems help make the achievement of low-income and first-generation -- and all -- students possible.

Despite our successes and alignment with the president's public agenda, the private, regional nonprofit higher education institutions that support so many underserved students are continually overlooked.

In our own state, Cal Grants, which help qualified-but-under-resourced students go to college, have shrunk from $9,708 to $8,056 in three years, a $1,652 loss that impacts 22 percent of Saint Mary's students.

Even so, Gov. Jerry Brown has thus far refused to restore Cal Grant funding to prior levels for students attending nonprofit private institutions, thereby undermining the very students he says he supports.

The reality is that providing a high-quality educational experience for talented students from under-resourced families and schools is expensive. "Shaking up our system of higher education" won't change that.

Expanding opportunities for students requires additional public investment in the nonprofit colleges and universities that have demonstrated success. In all the talk of access and affordability, hand wringing about the costs of higher education, and demands for a national ratings scheme, it's time to acknowledge that the promise of opportunity comes with a cost.

Bethami Dobkin, Ph.D., is the provost and vice president for academic affairs of Saint Mary's College in Moraga.