NAICU Washington Update

White House Summit on College Opportunity—A New Beginning?

January 17, 2014

The White House Summit on College Opportunity created buzz at the highest levels in Washington and beyond January 16, as more than 140 college presidents, philanthropists and business leaders were asked to an exclusive White House conversation featuring the President and First Lady.  The focus of the meeting was how to increase college attainment among low-income students, while acquiring and promoting commitments for new programmatic efforts from colleges and others groups.

The 140 commitments were focused in four areas:

  • Connecting more low-income students to the college that is right for them and ensuring that more students graduate (80 colleges and 15 organizations).
  • Increasing the pool of students preparing for college through early intervention efforts (30 colleges and 12 organizations).
  • Leveling the playing field in college advising and test preparation (20 colleges and 16 organizations).
  • Seeking breakthroughs in remedial education (20 colleges, 23 states, and 10 organizations).

The most striking aspect of the summit was the collaborative tone of the morning conversation.  After a contentious fall, following the announcement in August that the Administration was going to create a rating system for colleges, the tone of the White House conversation was very different.  Administration officials and others praised colleges for their past efforts with low-income students, and their continued efforts to educate students with a wide array of challenges, while asking them to think together on how even more could be accomplished. The afternoon was more mundane, highlighting many of the education reform foundations that have been dominating the Washington policy conversation for the past several years, and are more detached from many of the on-going efforts on college campuses.

While it is unclear how the White House developed its invitation list, it was clear college leaders that accepted the invitation to the summit were to pledge additional, specific concrete steps they would take to increase or support low-income students on campus. The summit was originally scheduled with less than a week’s notice in December but later postponed to January 16 because of the state funeral for Nelson Mandela. The White House released a fact sheet and the list of the pledges made by conference attendees:  Commitments to Action on College Opportunity.

Indeed, some of the criticism of the White House event came from those institutions that were not invited, including a number of institutions that are already successfully serving high proportions of low-income students.  The White House seemed aware of the concern as officials, including both the President and First Lady, promised to reach out to more institutions in the weeks and months ahead.

Nearly 60 NAICU members attended the event and many of their institutional pledges were included in a compendium released by the White House.  The Summit ended with a request from the White House that participants e-mail the summit organizers within 10-12 days with ideas on next steps, including any convening role a participant might want to undertake with others who were not included.

NAICU President David Warren also attended the summit.  In a statement released at the end of the event, he said:   “We are proud of the more than 60 private, nonprofit institutions which today announced new access and completion initiatives.  We are equally proud of the work done on a daily basis by the hundreds of private colleges working every day to help students achieve their educational goals.” 

Although the pledge does not appear in the program summary, NAICU has committed to help the White House disseminate the ideas coming from both the field and from conference attendees.  The new pledges announced at the Summit will be added to the list of programs catalogued in the Building Blocks to 2020 initiative.

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