Obamas Talk Education and Inequality at Summit

Focus on increasing low-income students' access to higher education

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Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press

President Barack Obama glances back to first lady Michelle Obama and Troy Simon, as he speaks during an Expanding College Opportunity event, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama outlined their efforts Thursday to increase access to higher education, using a White House summit with dozens of business and education leaders to draw the connection between college degrees and economic mobility.

“We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that’s at the heart of America,” the President said in a joint speech with the First Lady. “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 promised to push for broadening educational opportunities using both “the power of the pen and the power of the telephone”—to sign executive orders that advance his agenda when he can’t rally Congress, and to use the power of the office to bring stakeholders together.

“Today is a great example of how, without a whole bunch of new legislation, we can advance this agenda,” Obama said.

More than 80 college presidents, philanthropic leaders and business executives attended Thursday’s summit and presented over 100 commitments that the president and National Economic Council hope will help get more low-income students to attend college. Organizations including The College Board, the nonprofit organization that administers the SAT, presented plans to better connect students with information they need about not only applying to college, but to the schools that best suit their needs and abilities.

Bridget Terry Long, a dean and professor at the Harvard University School of Education, said during a panel session that while getting more information to students is important, access alone does not ensure that they will attend and finish college.

“If we build it they won’t necessarily come,” Long said. “We have to be proactive with outreach.”

Michelle Obama said students from low-income backgrounds often overcome huge barriers just to attend college.

“Just to make it to college, these students have already overcome so much,” she said. “We can’t think of those experiences as weaknesses, in fact they are just the opposite. They are strengths.”