White House, College Presidents Target Affordability

More than 100 college leaders made pledges to increase affordability for low-income students.

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More than 100 college and university leaders gathered at the White House Thursday to share their ideas onimproving college access and affordability for low-income students.

In order to attend the summit, college leaders, as well as representatives of 40 nonprofits and other organizations, were required to make specific commitments to address the cost of college, some of which include increasing outreach to high-performing low-income students to help best match them to colleges, providing free SAT and ACT test preparation and increasing the availability of college counselors for those students.

Those gathered -- including President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling -- emphasized a need to better prepare and draw high-performing students from disadvantaged backgrounds to college, and more importantly, help them graduate.

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"We are here for one purpose: We want to make sure more young people have the chance to earn a higher education," Obama said. "And in the 21st century economy, we all understand it's never been more important."

According to a White House report on increasing college opportunity for low-income students, just 1 in 10 people from low-income families have a bachelor's degree by age 25, compared with half of all people from high-income families. And by earning a college degree, the report says, the chance for children born in the bottom quintile of income distribution to move to the top quintile nearly quadruples.

"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, you can improve your situation in life, you can make something of yourself," Obama said. "And the fact is it's been getting harder to do that for a lot of people."

Obama, as well as other senior White House officials who spoke at the summit, said colleges, foundations, companies and nonprofits are banding together to help dispel some of the obstacles that keep low-income students from both entering and finishing college.

Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the Obama administration has taken steps to increase opportunity -- such as increasing investments in Pell Grants and college tax credits, expanding student loan repayment options and embarking on an agenda to rate colleges on value an quality. But college leaders can do even more, she said, because they know "better than anyone else in the country" the value of a college degree, not just for an individual, but also for the economy.

"You know...that the demands of today's economy have made a college degree no longer just for a talented few," Munoz said. "It's a necessity for our economic growth, it's a necessity for our economic success and it's a necessity for the success of young people coming up in our country today."

By implementing simple changes -- such as providing college application fee waivers, expanding financial aid counseling and making student services available to help new students navigate college and feel comfortable -- colleges and other organizations could significantly change the number of low-income students who enroll in and complete college, one panel of leaders discussed.

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Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system and former Secretary of Homeland Security under Obama, said touted existing financial aid initiatives throughout the system's 10 campuses that have allowed 50 percent of students to graduate with no debt. Additionally, 42 percent of the 190,000 students throughout the University of California are eligible for Pell Grants, and 46 percent are first generation college students.

The system has been able to achieve those numbers, she said, in part because of its "return to aid" program, in which 30 percent of all tuition dollars are fed back into the system to provide financial aid for students.