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President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama met today with over 140 college presidents at the White House. Also present at the event, were dozens of organizations committed to raising the number of low-income students who attend college.
No more than half of low-income high school graduates apply to college, so the President has asked the first lady to spearhead a national effort to encourage colleges — the more selective ones, in particular — to admit and graduate more students who are poor.
"We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that's at the heart of America," said President Obama. "To that end, young people, low-income students in particular, must have access to a college education."
He was preaching to the choir. Every institution and organization present, after all, had to show up at the conference with a plan to help needy students get into college.
Eric W. Kaler, president of the Universtiy of Minnesota, promised to offer increased financial aid and more advice to kids from poor communities. He says that admitting these students doesn't mean universities have to lower their standards.
"I'm proud of the fact that we don't accept students at the University of Minnesota who we don't project to succeed, said Kaler. "We look for the potential."
Non-profit groups say they're ready to help more students navigate the Byzantine college admission and financial aid processes. Jim McCorkell, president of College Possible, submitted a plan to reach out to a total of 20,000 students in Nebraska, Oregon, Wisconsin, Minnesota and, soon, Pennsylvania.
Still, McCorkell points out that one of the big issues the Obama administration is highlighting, and that could be a big problem in America, is undermatching — instead of opting for a four-year college, or another school that would be more suitable, low-income students end up attending a local community college.
"Sometime's that's the right fit," says McCorkell. "But sometimes it's not."
The only governor in attendance was Delaware's Jack Markell, a Democrat. He says enrolling more low-income students in public institutions is a costly proposition given the huge cuts in state funding for higher education in recent years.
But the nation's economy, says Markell, cannot afford to lose bright young people just because they're poor. He says his plan, in partnership with The College Board and several Ivy League schools, is already helping a thousand of these students get into college.
"They're low income students who are probably not going to apply absent our intervention," said Markell.
Yet, according to Jim McCorkell, there are two big problems that hit these kids especially hard: tuition costs and student debt.
"When you look at the average student loan debt in America, it's now approaching $30,000; so something has got to be done," says McCorkell. "The question is, what's driving tuition up at a rate so much greater than inflation?"
People in attendance say everybody tip-toed around that question during the day-long panel discussions. Administration officials stressed the issue of college access. Officials insisted the administration is separately tackling the high cost of college.