The White House will host college presidents, nonprofit and business leaders at a summit Thursday that ties President Barack Obama’s economic mobility agenda to his goal of increasing college completion rates in America.
By leveraging public-private partnerships, Obama is hoping to move the needle on his higher education goals without relying on an often-gridlocked Congress. And by homing in on low-income students, Obama is looking to tackle issues of both education and income inequality, given that children born into the lowest income brackets are more likely to rise out of poverty after obtaining a college degree.
“We do not have a more clear ladder of economic mobility than the attainment of a college degree,” Gene Sperling, the director of the National Economic Council, told reporters Wednesday on a conference call.
Over 100 colleges and 40 nonprofit and private organizations and businesses are making policy pledges, and representatives from many of them are set to attend the summit, where the president and First Lady Michelle Obama will call on the groups to expand low-income students’ access to college. Schools and businesses were asked to make commitments to reaching that goal by focusing on ways to connect students to the right schools, increase the pool of students preparing for college and improving test preparation and college advising.
Administration officials contend that by reaching out to low-income students before they reach high school, and by getting high achieving low-income students to apply to schools that best match their abilities, more students will not only be able to attend college, but finish. High achieving students whose families are among the lowest 25% of earners graduate from college at the same rate as low-achieving students from the top 25%, according to research by the Economic Policy Institute,
“We are a country that does not believe the outcomes of your life should be overly determined by the accident of your birth,” Sperling said. “But statistics show that we need to do more.”
To that end, Ivy League schools including Harvard and Yale plan to reach out to low-income students through social media and joint summits in areas where students have been less likely to apply. Historically black colleges and universities (often referred to as HBCUs), which already educate a high proportion of low-income students, are looking to serve as models for other universities.
“Most HBCUs have north of 85-90% students on financial aid,” said Dr. John Wilson, the president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. “Most of students that come to Morehouse are on financial aid. … We can advise on this subject.”
Despite the pledges, reform remains a tall order. Bigger challenges like the rising cost of tuition and the impact on low-income financial aid programs are being touched on only lightly, if at all, and solutions for the most part require congressional action.
“We have no desire to have a conference for conferences sake,” Sperling said. “This is about action and increasing things people are going to do to help low income kids succeed in college.”