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WASHINGTON -- About a dozen university presidents were summoned to the White House this week to discuss a possible new administration effort to get more low-income, academically talented students to apply to the nation’s best institutions.  

The leaders of top research institutions met with Gene Sperling, the chief White House economics adviser, and James Kvaal, deputy director of Obama's Domestic Policy Council, according to one of the people present.

“The emphasis was on how we can recruit more students of low socioeconomic status who may not ever go to college because they might not realize they have the opportunity to,” said Philip P. DiStefano, chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who attended one of the meetings on Tuesday morning.

“We especially talked about recruiting those overachieving students who are in schools where they don’t have the resources that many other students do but they’re doing just as well,” DiStefano said. “It is something that the president would like to see happen.”

The White House officials and university presidents also discussed the problem of “undermatching” -- that is, when high-achieving low-income students don’t apply to the competitive colleges where they would likely be accepted.

The phenomenon is increasingly gaining the attention of higher education researchers and advocates.

A College Board study released this month found that among high school graduates eligible for somewhat selective colleges, 42 percent of lower socioeconomic status enrolled in institutions less selective than the most selective college to which they were about 90 percent likely to be admitted.

The White House officials this week did not propose legislation but rather focused on what universities could do voluntarily to enroll more first-generation Pell Grant recipients, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

“The purpose of the meeting was really information gathering, for the White House to make some decisions about the next steps on this issue,” DiStefano said. “We talked about how can they improve what we’re doing with support -- not financial support -- but other types of support.”

Among those next steps, he added, might be “an acknowledgement of what we are doing and more of a recognition of what’s already going on.”

DiStefano said that the hourlong meeting consisted mostly of the university presidents telling White House officials of their efforts to recruit low-income students.

The administration also discussed the possibility of hosting an event with universities in December to focus on the issue of getting more low-income students to apply to top colleges, a source familiar with the meetings said.  

An administration official Wednesday night confirmed that meeting “was to discuss efforts to improve access for low-income students and the president’s broader higher education agenda,” declining to offer more details.

The most controversial piece of that higher education agenda -- a plan to develop a federal rating system for colleges -- has drawn criticism from university presidents. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday at a Treasury Department event that the administration still planned to have a draft of those metrics by about this time next year.

But that ratings plan, which the Obama administration wants to eventually link to federal funding, was not discussed during the White House meetings with university presidents this week, according to DiStefano and another source familiar with the meetings.

Besides DiStefano, other participants in the meetings included the leaders of Carnegie Mellon, Michigan State and Northwestern Universities, Georgia Institute of Technology, the Universities of Michigan at Ann Arbor, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Wisconsin at Madison, and Washington University in St. Louis.

On Thursday, Harvard University announced a new effort to use social media, videos and other forms of outreach to encourage more low-income students to apply to Harvard and other leading colleges and universities.


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