White House aims to increase college access for low-income students

The White House continued a slew of events meant to highlight action President Obama has taken since last year’s State of the Union address with a summit Thursday on ways to increase access to college for low-income students.

More than 100 colleges and universities and 40 non-profit organizations, foundations and other organizations who have committed to voluntary actions on the issue gathered at the White House Thursday. Both the president and first lady Michelle Obama are spearheading the initiative, which is representative of Mr. Obama’s new commitment to look for ways to take action on his priorities without Congress.

“We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that’s at the heart of America, the notion that if you work hard you can get ahead,” Mr. Obama said. “Today is a great example of how, without a whole bunch of new legislation, we can advance this agenda.”

Michelle Obama reflected on her personal experiences with the college application process, talking about how Princeton University had sought out her older brother as a basketball recruit. Without seeing him succeed there, she said, “It never would have occurred to me to apply to that school. Never. And I know there are so many kids out there just like me.”

The universities and organizations in attendance have broadly committed working on one of four areas. Some will be finding ways to better match low-income students with schools where they can succeed by expanding their recruit, setting new goals for the share of low-income students they would like to enroll, expanding need-based financial aid, and taking more transfer students from community colleges. Others will help expand the numbers of students preparing for college by doing a better job of connecting a college education to a successful career and expanding mentoring for students preparing for college.

Another group of colleges and organizations will focus their efforts in making college advising and test-preparation more accessible to low-income students with an expanded National College Advising Corps,  more resources for school counselors and college prep support from private organizations. More colleges will also help students navigate applications.

There will also be an effort to improve remedial education to ensure that low-income students are prepared for college.  Twenty-three states have committed to developing new, comprehensive approaches to increase the number of students who receive remediation in math and English, and colleges are beefing up their resources to serve students who are academically unprepared.

The announcement includes a special focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education, a priority for the Obama administration, including $95 million in commitments to help more students get stem degrees, and $12.5 million in new funding for STEM teaching.

“Everybody here is participating, I believe, because you know that college graduation has never been more valuable than it is today,” Mr. Obama said. Though he said a college diploma is not the way to be successful, “more than ever a college degree is the surest path to a stable middle class life and higher education.”

Before the president’s speech, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, noted that college costs have skyrocketed during Mr. Obama’s administration despite his other education initiatives, like a commitment to increasing affordability. Statistics from The College Board show that tuition and fees are up 27 percent at public four-year colleges and 29 percent at two-year programs from the 2008-2009 school year to 2013-2014. Private college costs have grown 14 percent in the last five years compared with 9 percent in the five years before that.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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