WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama tested his persuasive powers Thursday, summoning university presidents to the White House to win their commitments to expanding access to higher education and to demonstrate a new determination to use his own presidential authority in the face of legislative roadblocks.
Obama called on an assembly of college and university presidents and leaders of nonprofit and other education groups to rally around a goal of widening opportunities for disadvantaged students.
"We still have a long way to go to unlock the doors of higher education to more Americans and especially lower-income Americans," he said. "We're going to have to make sure they're ready to walk through those doors."
The event, which attracted more than 100 leaders in higher education, underscored both the power of the presidency to convene influential figures to bring about change as well as the limitations of a second-term president trying to drive sweeping changes in the face of a divided Congress.
The White House has increasingly been seeking ways to bypass Congress, an approach that can bring about results but that doesn't often have the breadth or the permanence of a law. Obama said his education initiatives are part of an effort to "make sure there are new ladders of opportunity to the middle class."
"I'm working with Congress where I can to accomplish this," he said. "But I'm also going to take action on my own if Congress is deadlocked."
Eager to put the White House's stature behind the education push, Obama was joined by first lady Michelle Obama, who urged schools to actively reach out to low-income high-schoolers to attract them to their campuses and to provide them with help once they decide to pursue a higher education.
Both the president and the first lady spoke in personal terms, saying they had benefited from a national commitment to expand opportunities for young people that led them to attend elite universities. Obama graduated from Columbia University and his wife from Princeton University, and both graduated from Harvard Law School.
"The truth is that if Princeton hadn't found my brother as a basketball recruit, and if I hadn't seen that he could succeed on a campus like that, it never would have occurred to me to apply to that school — never," Mrs. Obama said. "And I know that there are so many kids out there just like me — kids who have a world of potential, but maybe their parents never went to college or maybe they've never been encouraged to believe they could succeed there."
The daylong program at the White House featured a number of work sessions among White House and administration officials and educators. Numerous participants praised Obama for convening the meeting and said they are already seeing results from the preparation ahead of the event.
Debbie Beal, the president and founder of the youth leadership and college access program called the Posse Foundation, said that after speaking in November with Gene Sperling, director of the White House's National Economic Council, her organization decided to double its science, technology, engineering, and math scholarships. By Thanksgiving, they had obtained $70 million in scholarships from 10 colleges and universities over the next five years.
"That's what's happened in the room. Everybody kind of thought, 'What can we do to join this initiative, something extra, something more, something beyond what we've already done?'" she said.
Schools that participated in Thursday's program have agreed to help low-income students connect with colleges that can meet their needs and then trying to ensure that they graduate. They also are seeking to ensure that lower-income students aren't disadvantaged by lack of access to college advisers and inability to prepare for entrance exams like the SAT and ACT.
"By coming together and stepping up what we're doing, we can go that much further," said Rebecca Blank, chancellor at University of Wisconsin-Madison.