President Obama and First Lady Talk College Affordability at White House Summit

The White House continued its efforts to make college more affordable and more accessible for all Americans, this week announcing commitments from more than 100 colleges and universities, plus millions of dollars from nonprofit groups and foundations, aimed at helping poor students get degrees.

“We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that is at the heart of America—the notion that if you work hard you can get ahead, you can improve your situation in life, you can make something of yourself,” said President Obama, during remarks at the White House’s College Opportunity Summit on Thursday. “The fact is, if we hadn’t made a commitment as a country to send more people to college, Michelle, me, maybe a few of you wouldn’t be here.”

A college degree is still a pathway to the middle class in America, according to recent research. Incomes for college-educated Americans are twice as high as for those with high school diplomas, and college graduates are far less likely to be unemployed. But the poor often stay poor—because they can’t afford the rising costs of college in America, and often they have little experience or guidance in navigating the college admissions process.

Only 9 percent of those born in the bottom quartile will attain a bachelor’s degree by age 25, compared to 54 percent in the top quartile.

President Barack Obama discusses college education at the White House’s College Opportunity Summit on Thursday, January 16. At his right is Troy Simon, who was able to enroll in Bard College thanks in large part to a program called the Urban League College Track. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

“It’s good to see the White House pushing institutions to make college and university education more accessible for low-income students,” said Mark F. Smith, NEA’s higher education policy analyst. “This is a good start to addressing the affordability crisis in higher education. We also need to look at ensuring that colleges and universities have adequate numbers of faculty and staff to make a real difference for these students.”

This week, Michelle Obama also announced she would be spending more time on the issues of college access and affordability. She said, “My hope is that with this new effort, that instead of talking about our kids, we talk with our kids… That story of opportunity through education is the story of my life, and I want them to know it can be their story, too—but only if they devote themselves to continuing their education past high school.”

This week’s announcements from the White House aren’t Obama’s first foray into the issues of college access and affordability. Over his tenure, the White House has doubled federal investment in Pell Grants and college tax credits, and reformed student loan practices. Obama also has called on the United States to lead the world in production of college graduates by 2020.

The recent commitments from colleges include such things:

  • Bunker Hill Community College in Boston will double the number of students in its successful Summer Bridge program, designed for entering students who need better math and reading skills. The program’s expansion will be funded through a $215,000 state grant, the college announced.
  • The California State University will commit $8 million to hire 70 additional professional staff advisors on campuses—those key individuals who keep students on track to earn degrees. (The $8 million is part of the CSU’s annual budget proposal, which still needs approval from the state.)
  • Kingsborough Community College in New York commits to increasing the number of students who complete a college-level math course by the time they complete 30 credits from 20 percent to 50 percent. To do so, they’ll rely on improved course scheduling, academic advisement and tutoring. It’s unclear how it would be funded.

Meanwhile, the commitments from philanthropic groups include: The Posse Foundation’s commitment of $35 million in full-tuition scholarships for students in STEM fields, and the College Board’s announcement that it would provide four free waivers to low-income students so that they could apply to college for free.