President Obama highlights University's $10 million commitment to college opportunity

In an initiative highlighted by President Barack Obama, the University of Chicago will promote college readiness and success for underserved students across the nation, with support from a $10 million gift from University Trustee Steven Kersten and his wife, Priscilla Kersten.

President Obama highlighted the University’s groundbreaking efforts in remarks delivered at a White House summit Thursday, Jan. 16. The initiative, which builds on the work of researchers and practitioners at the University’s Urban Education Institute, will bring evidence-based tools and training to 10,000 schools across the nation over the next five years. It also will provide policymakers, elected officials and education leaders with the best evidence available to promote college preparation, access and success.


“We know that not enough low-income students are taking the steps required to prepare for college,” Obama said at the event. “That’s why I’m glad the University of Chicago—my neighbor, and the place where Michelle and I both worked in the past—is announcing a $10 million college success initiative that will reach 10,000 high schools over the next five years.”

The Kersten gift for the Urban Education Institute will help the institute become a national locus for knowledge, policy guidance and examples of education innovation for improving urban schooling.

University President Robert J. Zimmer joined other university and college presidents at Thursday’s White House summit, as well as officials of the National Economic Council, the Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Education, in a series of panels and breakout discussions on issues surrounding college success. The group also heard remarks by both President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Zimmer said the nation’s urban research universities have a special role to play in leading college access and readiness efforts, bringing their intellectual resources to bear on the fundamental challenges facing the nation’s cities. That distinctive contribution, he said, is what inspired the Urban Education Institute, which brings together applied and scholarly research, teacher education, the operation of a prekindergarten-to-12th-grade charter school educating 1,700 students on four campuses, and the creation and dissemination of research-based and practice-proven tools to schools nationwide.

Zimmer said the Kerstens’ gift would support a crucial step for the Urban Education Institute, allowing students from across the nation to benefit from the work that has gone on in Chicago for more than 20 years.

“The Kersten family gift will allow us to make the distinctive work of our scholars and practitioners available nationwide, addressing an issue of enormous importance,” Zimmer said. “The Kerstens’ generosity reflects their confidence in the work of the Urban Education Institute, and their deep commitment to making higher education available to students from all walks of life.”

Steven Kersten, who graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1980, is president and CEO of WaterSaver Faucet Co., the largest worldwide manufacturer of laboratory faucets, valves and related products. He is also CEO of Guardian Equipment Inc., a manufacturer of industrial safety equipment, and Lakeview Property Investors, an industrial real estate investment firm. He is a board member and past president of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest. He is active in efforts to promote manufacturing in Chicago, including serving as co-chair of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council and on various city task forces, and working with Austin Polytechnical Academy, a Chicago Public School focused on educating students from the Austin neighborhood for careers in manufacturing.

Priscilla Kersten is president of the Square One Foundation, a private family foundation active in civic, educational and social justice issues. She serves on the governing board of UChicago Charter School and is on the steering committee of the Women’s Board of the University of Chicago, where she co-chairs the Women’s Board UEI Partner’s Committee. She is a trustee at the Latin School of Chicago, a board member of the Chicago Children’s Choir, a member of Impact 100 Chicago and chair of the board of High Jump—an organization serving academically talented and under-resourced middle school students.

The Kerstens said their gift reflects the urgency and scope of the problem and their support of the University’s commitment to improving urban education.

“We see our grant to UEI as an investment in outstanding people at a critical time for our youth. We absolutely cannot let another generation of students not succeed—they are our nation’s future,” Priscilla Kersten said. “We predict that UChicago will be known as much for its work in Urban Education as it is in the field of economics. That speaks to the extraordinary talent that UEI has attracted.”

“The challenge of urban education in the United States is enormous. As a society, we are consigning children to lives of limited opportunity and unfulfilled potential by failing to provide them with a quality education,” added Steven Kersten. “We believe that the work of UEI represents one of the highest and best aspirations of a major urban research university. The University of Chicago has brought to bear its significant firepower on trying to solve one of the most difficult—yet critically important—social challenges we face. We are happy to be a part of this work and are fully confident of its success.”

The Kersten gift will enable UEI to improve the odds for underserved students on four separate tracks.

One track will focus on improving literacy skills at the elementary school level, the necessary foundation for college preparation and a critical predictor of student success.

The second track will support the design and dissemination of evidence-based tools and training that empower educators and parents to improve their schools. Based on in-depth research into the factors that make schools successful, tools such as the 5Essentials—a diagnostic assessment of school effectiveness, coupled with a framework for taking action—are already at work across Illinois and in a growing number of cities nationwide.

New tools will help parents and educators monitor student success through school. These tools also will build the “college knowledge” students need to establish a college-ready record, apply to college and succeed when they get there.

The third track will identify, articulate and share the best available evidence to guide policymakers and education leaders responsible for improving schooling, college readiness and access nationwide.

Finally, the Kersten gift will establish a $4 million endowment, to support the work to improve urban educational practice and policy in perpetuity.

“This work will position UEI as a national locus for how to create reliably excellent schooling, where learning is rigorous and college readiness is real,” said Timothy Knowles, the John Dewey Director of the Urban Education Institute. “Our aim is simple and ambitious—to dramatically increase the number of students who finish high school, are well-prepared for higher education, gain admission, persist through the college years, and who graduate ready for success in their careers and lives.”

This commitment to college success builds upon UChicago Promise, a University-wide effort to help students from the City of Chicago aspire to college, prepare for college and gain admission. Launched in 2011, UChicago Promise combines highly successful programs such as Collegiate Scholars, which allows high school students to take enrichment courses from UChicago faculty, with new efforts such as the Admissions Academy, which offers training for area students and counselors on navigating the admissions and financial aid processes.

For more information on UChicago Promise, please see this report detailing progress made in the initiative’s first full year. For more information on college affordability and access at the University of Chicago, please see this information sheet.