Leaders from the Ivy League to community colleges are being asked by President Barack Obama to bolster educational prospects for low-income students in an era when tuition is soaring.
Peter Salovey, president of Yale University, Debora Spar of Barnard College and William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, are among the higher education officials summoned to the White House today for a discussion on how to ensure high-performing students from the nation’s poorest areas find the right college for themselves.
With Obama’s agenda stalled in a Congress split between a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Republican majority in the House, the president is seeking to advance his policy goals through a combination of executive action and persuading stakeholders to act.
Helping low-income students succeed in college “is a good area for mobilization,” said Gene Sperling, the White House director of the National Economic Council who helped coordinate the summit. “If you could mobilize a large amount of colleges, having each step up their game” as a collective effort, “you could move the dial in this area.”
Obama has called education vital to future U.S. growth and the economic mobility of middle- and lower-income families. Today’s event, which was scheduled to include more than 100 college and university leaders, is the latest in a series designed to frame policies Obama will outline in his State of the Union address on Jan. 28.
Commitments to Help
At today’s meeting, Obama will announce that college and university presidents have made more than 100 commitments to expand college opportunity, with a focus on low-income students, according to the White House.
The education leaders have promised action in at least one of four areas: connecting more low-income students to the college that best suits them; increasing the pool of low-income students preparing for college while they are in middle or high school; increased help for low-income students preparing for SAT of ACT college entrance exams, and helping “academically underprepared” students while in college so they graduate.
More than 40 non-profit organizations, foundations and companies have pledged to finance related steps to aid low-income students, such as waiving fees for college applications or mentoring disadvantaged students preparing for college.
Most high-achieving students from low-income families don’t apply to selective universities, even though many schools offer financial aid, according to a 2012 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research. One reason is that there are often just one or two such students at high schools in low-income areas, and it’s inefficient for admissions officers to visit them, the report found.
One outcome of collaboration among schools may be shared approaches to reaching out to disadvantaged students and advising them on completing college applications, said Robert Shireman, executive director of California Competes and a former deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Education Department.
“Colleges need to recognize in their admissions criteria that low-income applicants are not likely to have the same types of brag points as kids from privileged families,” Shireman said in an e-mail. “ Pressure from the White House can encourage colleges to take a second look at disadvantaged applicants in the same way they tilt in favor of the children of alumni.”
Too many wealthy schools have been able to boast about their aid policies while actually enrolling few low-income students, Shireman said.
The summit discussions should go beyond financial aid for low-income students, Barnard’s Spar said.
“Sometimes little things can go a long way,” said Spar, citing weekend workshops on college applications for high school students and their families, programs offered by Barnard. “Bringing in eighth-graders to a science program for one day can change their perceptions in a profound way.”
Colleges should also work with high schools and middle schools in their communities to help better prepare low-income students for college.
“At a minimum, the White House is using its convening power to get people talking about this topic,” Spar said. “Just having a conversation and a little bit of public pressure and public scrutiny is a good thing.”
Also scheduled to attend are Robert Zimmer, president, University of Chicago; Biddy Martin, president, Amherst College; and Joan Hinde Stewart, president, Hamilton College.
Amherst College, a liberal arts school in Amherst, Massachusetts, is making four new commitments: recruit and graduate larger numbers of Native American students; help create a pipeline to college for low-income students in the communities around Amherst; encourage more of its low-income students to major in science, technology, engineering and math fields; and help low-income students take part in experiences such as study abroad and internships.
“We are eager to take on additional challenges aimed at ensuring that all our students take advantage of high-impact learning opportunities at Amherst, while working with partners to increase the number of low-income students in our region who go to college,” Martin said in a statement.
Prestigious colleges are often competing with each other for high-achieving low-income students, yet the conversation should also include ways to help the middle-achieving group, said Scott Baier, executive director of College Bound St. Louis, which helps first-generation and low-income students get into and complete college.
“One of the things I’d like to hear come out of the summit is the plan for college counselors in large, urban school districts,” Baier said. Often those schools have just one counselor to address complicated issues.
The issue has been under study at the White House about 10 months, Sperling said. A core group of 30-40 college presidents gathered to discuss strategies.
“The message we got was that a presidential call to action in this area would be effective,” Sperling said.
Cost is another barrier to higher education. The Obama administration has proposed a program to rank colleges and universities by their performance in such areas as graduation rates and curbing tuition increases. Schools with the greater success in these areas would get more federal education aid.
“Higher education should not be a luxury,” Obama said in Buffalo, New York, in August when he announced the program. The Education Department plans to have a kind of consumer guide ready by the 2015 school year.
Average tuition, fees, room and board at four-year public universities has surged 83 percent in the past 20 years to $18,391 from $10,049, according to the College Board, a New York-based nonprofit organization whose members include universities. At private colleges, the average cost jumped 60 percent to $40,917. The most expensive private colleges charge more than $60,000 a year to attend.
With outstanding education loans now totaling more than $1 trillion, the Federal Reserve is studying student debt as it relates to economic growth. In recent years, economists at the New York Fed began analyzing student debt as part of their quarterly reports on national household credit.