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Detroit — Creating a college-going culture in communities with low income and first-generation students is a movement that’s gaining ground, but much more needs to be done, Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, told a crowd of college advocates Monday.

“We have to be bolder, we have to be smarter, we have to be more urgent if we are going to achieve the impact that we all desire,” said Allen, stressing the need to reach young Latino and African-American students. “If we don’t gain an education system that allows young people access to higher education, which is paramount to our country’s ... positioning in the world, we are going to be in some serious trouble.”

Allen spoke before a record-breaking 1,100 people from 505 organizations attending the 21st annual National College Access Network conference, held this week at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center. The foundation works to increase college access for low-income and first-generation college students.

“We need these young people,” Allen said. “We need their vision, we need their ingenuity, we need their inventions, we need their scholarship. We need their leadership in the United States if we are going to retain economic and political dominance and more importantly, if we are going to retain our democracy and its historic pursuit of a more perfect union.”

In 1990, the U.S. led the world in four-year college attainment but has since tumbled to 12th, according to a video shown by Bill Moses of the Kresge Foundation, which sponsored the conference. And while 70 percent of students from higher-income families complete a college degree, Moses said that only 10 percent of students from low-income families achieve the same.

“That, unfortunately for low-income families, has been consistent (for several decades),” said Moses, managing director of Kresge’s Education Program. “We have to change that if we are going to provide the opportunities we need to for everyone in this country.”

Moses said research has shown the American economy would gain $2.1 trillion in additional income if more people of color were getting college degrees.

“That would be a fundamental shift in they way our economy works, and how people would benefit from that economy,” Moses said.

Allen spoke of work the Skillman Foundation has done in six Detroit neighborhoods, noting that it has focused primarily on increasing high school graduation rates. The foundation has been able to increase graduation rates by 17 percentage points, to 82 percent; doubled the number of youth development opportunities from 7,500 to nearly 14,000; reduced youth crime by 51 percent; expanded youth jobs by 450 percent and established 10 college preparatory schools, Allen said.

She added that the Skillman Foundation also worked to establish the Detroit Promise, guaranteeing all of the city’s high school graduates a tuition-free path to community college; efforts are under way to expand that guarantee for students to attend four-year universities.

“This is a pretty successful start, but it’s not enough when you consider we are the poorest big city in America,” Allen said. “This is about a social justice issue, a civil rights issue. But it’s also about a competitive issue for our country. If we don’t address this as an American problem, then we are going to be facing significant challenges.”

The conference, which runs through Wednesday, includes forums focusing on issues such as readiness, retention, supporting students, research and more.

It was important to host it in Detroit, said Pranav Kothari, president of the NCAN board.

“There is a need in southeast Michigan,” said Kothari, a University of Michigan graduate who started a business in Chicago. “You have an education system locally that is having a very hard time preparing and getting its students into college. This is making sure this community knows that the national organization of college access and success is thinking about what’s happening locally.”

KKozlowski@detroitnews.com

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