WASHINGTON, D.C. — More than 80 leaders of institutions of higher learning, among them University President Peter Salovey, gathered at the White House Thursday to launch an initiative aimed at expanding low incomes students’ access to a college education.
Intended to be a major milestone in President Obama’s effort to make the United States the worldwide leader in college graduation rates by 2020, the conference drew together a wide range of institutions, from Yale to community college associations. Both Obama and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling, who had a leading role in the organization of the conference, emphasized that the conference was intended to serve as a launch for a long-running and extensive effort to help more low-income students attend and graduate from college.
“If we as a nation can expand opportunity and reach out to these young people, help them not just go to college but graduate from a college or university, it could have a transformative effect,” Obama told the group, suggesting that America’s low-income students represent an enormous cohort of untapped talent. “What this meeting today tells me is we’ve got dedicated citizens across this country who are ready to stand up and meet this challenge.”
Despite speeches from the president and First Lady Michelle Obama, the central tenant of the conference was a document outlining over 100 universities’ individual proposals to expand access for low-income students.
“The conference today really has been about aligning universities and college leaders around the importance of providing access to a college education for groups in the lowest income strata…so that an accident of birth is not what determines the quality of their lives,” Salovey told the News. “That is in the interest of students and families, but it’s also in the national interest.”
FROM YALE, AMBITIOUS PLANS
As part of the national effort, Yale has made a series of commitments aimed at both increasing the number of low-income students applying to Yale and improving the educational outcomes for those students once they arrive on campus.
The commitments articulated on Thursday emerged over the past several months through the teamwork of administrators like Salovey, Yale College Dean Mary Miller, Undergraduate Dean of Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan. The group also spent significant time speaking with faculty as well as residential college masters and deans, Salovey said.
“[We] tried to look at what was out there already and tried to look at what research suggests works effectively,” Salovey said, emphasizing that he believes any measures to improve access should be firmly grounded in evidence.
In conjunction with Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia, Yale plans on expanding its outreach efforts in communities poorly represented on campus. Beginning in the fall of 2014, the four universities will visit parts of the country — such as West Virginia, South Texas and Arkansas — where most students do not typically apply to Ivy League institutions for joint outreach sessions, which Yale predicts will draw large and diverse audiences.
In addition to the sessions, the University plans to dispatch over 300 “student ambassadors” from minority and low-income backgrounds to return to their home communities over term breaks, where they will present to over 600 schools about Yale admissions and financial aid in 2014-’15.
Beyond outreach, though, the University also will take measures to increase the number of low-income students who matriculate. The number of QuestBridge Finalists enrolled in the freshman class — which currently stands at 50 to 60 per year — will increase to 75 to 80 in the fall of 2014.
The University’s commitments also extend to helping students succeed once they arrive at Yale. According to the Thursday document, the University will continue the Freshman Scholars program, which brings roughly 30 accepted students to campus for five weeks during the summer for activities, coursework, seminars and trips at no cost to them.
The continuation of Freshman Scholars will coincide with the development of online course modules in pre-calculus, which will serve as the stepping stone to build a fuller set that could be offered to a wider array of students in the summer of 2015.
However, Salovey said the new commitments will not be the last on the part of the University, citing social media and other applications that keep students on top of the college application process as potential areas for future investment.
“We’re just getting started in what we might be able to do at Yale,” Salovey said.
Other schools made major investments in expanding access. The University of Chicago announced a $10 million College Success Initiative, which is expected to reach 10,000 schools in the next five years. MIT, meanwhile, will collaborate with edX, an online course platform started in conjunction with Harvard, to introduce underserved students to science, technology engineering and math subjects while improving their college preparation.
In contrast to the specificity of Yale’s proposals, many of the University’s peers submitted much shorter plans.
Harvard, for instance, vowed to “enhance its social media approaches to reach low-income high school students” by adding staff resources, but did not elaborate further.
The University of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, committed only to a new outreach initiative targeted at prospective low and middle-income students, but did not provide any further information about the scope or implementation of it.
At the same time, many schools highlighted previous efforts to expand access in sections of their pledges titled “Building on Existing Efforts,” which highlighted previous attempts to expand access.
Only two members of the Ivy League — Dartmouth and Cornell — did not make commitments or attend the White House conference.
The idea for a conference of university leaders began in early 2013. Sperling said the Obama administration decided that access to higher education was one of the issues on which Obama could significantly “move the dial.”
Over the next several months, all university leaders present on Thursday received an individual call from Sperling, State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said on Thursday. Each of the leaders was told that specific commitments to expand access would be the “price of admission” to the conference, Zimpher said.
In addition to phone calls from Sperling, many of the college presidents were invited in small groups — typically when they were in Washington for fundraising or other events — to the White House, where they met with senior administration officials.
The conference was originally scheduled for mid-December, but the death of Former South African President Nelson Mandela and Obama’s subsequent trip to South Africa caused a month-long delay.
None of the college presidents was allowed to publicly disclose the specifics of their commitments until Thursday morning, when the White House made the 88-page document outlining the initiatives public.
The conference is representative of Obama’s new political strategy of utilizing his “pen and phone” — words that were repeated frequently by Obama and Sterling Thursday — to issue executive orders and utilize persuasion to sidestep a gridlocked Congress.
LITTLE REAL AGREEMENT
Although Sperling began the conference by suggesting that “lives will be changed by the commitments made today,” Thursday’s conference saw no major new policies announced by the Obama administration itself —rather, the commitments outlined came from universities, colleges, business and non-profits.
That approach, Salovey suggested, may not be ideal.
“[Access to higher education] is a challenge that’s going to require everyone to participate: colleges and universities, communities, families, but also states and federal government,” Salovey said. “To make this work we cannot exclusively rely on colleges and universities, nor can you exclusively rely on government funding.”
The decision to place the onus for change on institutions has led to a less-than-cohesive strategy for increasing the number of low-income students graduating from college, with each institution putting forward slightly different proposals rather than focusing on a few major ideas. Salovey said that considering differences between campuses while striving for a more cogent approach was an “interesting tension” of the conference, adding that higher education leaders should “try to converge on what works.”
“We can’t just be 1,000 points of light. We have to get to scale,” Zimpher said. “The greatest challenge of this campaign is how we can collectively focus on a few [solutions].”
Even amongst university leaders, tensions exist over broad issues impacting higher education accessibility, notably the responsibilities of institutions and the federal government, the piecemeal approach of the conference and the rising cost of a college education. Some leaders at the conference expressed opposing ideologies on topics such as standardized testing and admissions practices.
While the issue of the rising cost of higher education was not a major or explicit cost of discussion, it nevertheless bubbled under the surface throughout the day.
The conference comes months after a call by Obama to tie federal funding for universities to ranking based on measures such as average tuition, the share of low-income students enrolled in college and student debt. Although the administration considers the measure a way to curb the rising cost of college, university presidents have broadly denounced it.
“We’re still going to have to make sure that rising tuition doesn’t price the middle class out of a college education,” Obama said. “The government’s not going to be able to continually subsidize a system in which higher education inflation is going up faster than healthcare inflation.”
Sperling told the News that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Director of the Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Munoz will continue to “try to come up with effective measures to give students more sense of are they getting the best value.”
Compared with that proposal, most of the agreed-upon commitments made on Thursday are minimal.
Furthermore, Obama said Thursday that he hopes to hold another conference with more higher education leaders in the near future. The administration, though, has yet to set a timeline for such a conference.