College Leaders Leave White House Summit Inspired to Act

Charles Dharapak, AP Images

President Obama greets college presidents and other leaders who were invited to the White House summit on college access. He described the event as "a great example of how, without a whole bunch of legislation, we can advance this agenda."
January 17, 2014

President Obama and college presidents set aside their differences over his administration's proposed college-rating system on Thursday, convening at the White House for a daylong summit on college access.

In a speech Mr. Obama made no mention of the system, which would judge institutions based on measures of access and affordability, and the proposal came up only a couple of times in conversations at the event.

Instead, the president and the 140 college leaders, business people, foundation heads, and nonprofit executives he had assembled for the summit focused on ways they could work together to get more low-income students into, and through, college.

Mr. Obama described the event as part of his administration's broader effort to spur change in the absence of cooperation from Congress. Later this month, he will convene business leaders for a similar summit, to discuss the long-term unemployed.

"I've got a pen to take executive actions where Congress won't, and I've got a telephone to rally folks around the country on this mission," he said. "Today is a great example of how, without a whole bunch of legislation, we can advance this agenda."

The summit was structured around a series of panels and small-group discussions in which attendees touted their own efforts to expand access and praised one another's. They talked about ways they might collaborate, and how to scale up successful programs.

In between the sessions, participants heard from the president and the first lady (see a related article), a business leader, and a governor. After lunch, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke about the need to remake remedial education and the challenges of providing access while containing costs and ensuring educational quality.

"We know there are no silver bullets or easy solutions here," Mr. Duncan said. He called the more than 100 "commitments" that participants had brought to the summit a testament to the idea that "we can't let the difficulty of the challenges facing higher-education become an excuse for inaction."

Wide-Ranging Commitments

To attend the invitation-only summit, college presidents had to commit to expand college access. The pledges they made are wide-ranging, touching on nearly every aspect of college preparation, access, persistence, and completion. As Mr. Duncan put it in his prepared remarks, "some of the commitments are small-bore, some are sweeping."

Of the 109 colleges and universities that made commitments, 62 were private four-year institutions, 36 were public four-year colleges, and 11 were community colleges. At more than 60 percent of the colleges, less than a quarter of students receive Pell Grants. Five community-college systems and five state-college systems also made pledges.

Private four-year institutions, which in 2012 enrolled 14 percent of the nation's undergraduates, were overrepresented among the institutions making commitments, accounting for 57 percent of the pledges. Community colleges, which served 38 percent of the nation's students, provided only 10 percent of the pledges.

Throughout Thursday's event, White House officials repeatedly stressed that the summit would not be a one-off event, with Gene B. Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, promising a follow-up summit in a year, to serve as "an action-forcing event." He added that mayors, governors, and business leaders might play a bigger role in the second summit.

In the meantime, Mr. Sperling said, the administration will hold a series of smaller, more focused gatherings and work to identify low-cost "universal practices" that colleges might adopt.

He asked attendees to send an email within 10 to 12 days detailing their future goals.

"This meeting will not be a success unless it's creating momentum and more action," he said.

'Not Just Another Meeting'

College leaders said they had left the event feeling impressed and inspired by the administration.

"It was not just another meeting" about the challenges facing higher education, said Mark D. Gearan, president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. "God knows, we have enough of those."

Mark P. Becker, president of Georgia State University, concurred. "This is not just a feel-good initiative," he said. "This is a national priority."

Brice W. Harris, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, praised the administration for "putting their energy where their rhetoric's been."

Now "the colleges are going to have to deliver on the commitments, and that's not going to be easy," Mr. Harris said. "If we allow ourselves, we can get pulled off in a hundred different directions."

Kenneth L. Ender, president of Harper College, a community college in Illinois, said that while the federal government can act as a "catalyst" for change, the ultimate responsibility rests with the colleges.

"While we can describe the problems as being national," he said, "the solutions have got to be local."

Andy Thomason and Mark Keierleber contributed to this report.