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Summoned to the White House (Update)

December 2, 2011

WASHINGTON (Updated 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2) -- President Obama has invited the presidents or chancellors of 10 colleges or state university systems to a meeting at the White House on Monday to discuss affordability and productivity in higher education. The move is highly unusual: While administration events often feature college leaders in various roles, a meeting called on such short notice, with the president himself in attendance, is rare.

The guest list, drawn largely from public institutions, includes leaders of large state systems, public universities, a statewide community college system and two private institutions. Amid an increasing focus on student debt and college prices, the event seems to signal that the Obama administration will make those issues a focus going into the 2012 campaign.

College tuition prices appear to be an overarching concern: “The cost of college has nearly tripled over the past three decades, forcing students to take out more loans and rack up more debt in pursuit of the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in a twenty-first century economy,” Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, wrote in the invitation to the event. But only one president comes from an expensive private institution, indicating that the president is not focusing on the nation's the priciest colleges in what has been described as a roundtable discussion.

Those in attendance, according to a representative of a higher education association, will include the leaders of three state university systems: Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York; Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the University of Texas System; and William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. Three more are drawn from public universities: Holden Thorp, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County; and F. King Alexander, president of California State University at Long Beach.

One is from a community college: Thomas Snyder, president of Ivy Tech Community College, the Indiana community college system.

And leaders of three very different private nonprofit colleges round out the list of presidents: Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie Mellon University, frequently cited for its Open Learning Initiative of free online courses and course materials; Larry Shinn, president of the famously tuition-free Berea College; and Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, whose model of fully online, competency-based education has been embraced by numerous states in recent months..

Jane Wellman, the founder and executive director of the Delta Project on Postsecondary Costs, Productivity and Accountability, is also attending, as is Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation. Wellman and Merisotis testified Wednesday at a House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on rising college prices. 

The meeting will also include Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and White House advisers. In the invitation, Barnes wrote that the discussion will focus on increasing access and success as well as how to make higher education  more affordable. The presidents will be asked for their perspectives on increasing productivity, access and attainment, as well as how to create change at colleges and universities.

Obama has met with leaders in other sectors in the past, including relatively frequent meetings with CEOs of the nation's largest corporations. But the meeting will be the first gathering in recent memory of college presidents to discuss higher education issues with the president. (In October 2010, the White House hosted a summit on community colleges, led by Jill Biden, the vice president's wife and a community college faculty.)

The meeting is only the latest government salvo into the issue of college prices: In a speech Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on colleges to address rising tuition prices “with much greater urgency." Witnesses and members of Congress at the subcommittee hearing Tuesday on rising costs discussed a broad range of possible solutions.

"The President has acknowledged that meeting the challenge of increased access and affordability is a goal in which we each share responsibility and a stake – particularly at a time when shouldering the financial burden associated with attaining a higher education degree is greater than ever for students and families," Barnes wrote.

 

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