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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is once again gathering hundreds of college presidents here today for a second White House-run summit that will promote new commitments to help low-income students.

Administration officials said they had won some 500 promises from college leaders, states, higher education associations, nonprofit organizations and other entities.

Like the January event, the college leaders and other organizations had to make new commitments in order to participate. The commitments for today’s summit were aimed at producing more college graduates, helping prepare more low-income students for college, and improving college advising for underserved students. Dozens of commitments were also focused on getting more underrepresented students to complete science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees.

The Summit on 'This Week'
Our weekly news podcast, "This Week @ Inside Higher Ed," will feature a discussion of the summit with Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College. Click here to receive email notification of this and other podcasts.

Administration officials said they wanted to especially promote partnerships among and between colleges as well as with K-12 school districts.

The commitments also include new philanthropic pledges. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation is committing $30 million over the next six years to boost college graduation rates for low-income students. And the Helmsley Charitable Trust plans to spend $10 million to scale programs that promote underserved students in STEM fields.

The three main higher education associations representing public institutions also announced a new collaboration that seeks to, among other things, create more seamless transfer pathways for students between their institutions and more accurately measure student progress. The organizations -- the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and the American Association of Community Colleges -- said they would also create new metrics and reporting tools that “more accurately” track student outcomes at their institutions.

The Education Department also announced several new executive actions, including a plan to set aside $10 million over the next five years for the Institute of Education Sciences to fund research on college completion. Separately, the department also said it would waive certain federal student aid regulations for a select number of colleges that want to experiment with giving Pell Grants to high school students taking college-level courses.

President Obama and the First Lady, as well as Vice President Joe Biden, are among the speakers at the daylong event, which will also feature panel discussions and breakout sessions. It is being held at the Ronald Reagan Building, several blocks from the White House.

Long Beach City College President Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who is attending the summit, praised the Obama administration for “doing a great job of putting college completion on the national agenda.”

Still, he said he thought the administration had struggled to strike the right balance between events like today’s that showcase colleges’ best efforts to help low-income students, and a regulatory agenda aimed at holding colleges accountable.

“They need to continue to fine tune both sides of the equation: to make sure they use the right sticks and the right -- and a large enough amount of -- carrots,” he said. “It would be nice if the federal government or the administration had the ability to tie more resources to the work that we’re doing and the commitments that we’re putting forward.”

A Broader Reach

Some in higher education criticized the focus of January’s White House convening as placing too much emphasis on boosting low-income students’ enrollment at elite universities rather than the types of institutions that educate underserved students in large numbers.

This time around, though, community colleges will have a larger presence at the summit. David Baime, senior vice president of government relations and research at the American Association of Community Colleges, said that more of the two-year colleges that he represents would be attending the summit than in January.

“The administration clearly wanted to maximize their impact by being as inclusive as they can,” Baime said. “Our colleges have enthusiastically responded to the administration’s offer to make new commitments.”

In a departure from the January event, the White House has also invited participation from American Public University System, a large, publicly-traded for-profit university --a sector of higher education with which the Obama administration has repeatedly clashed, most significantly over its gainful employment regulations.

American Public, which is one of the nation’s largest for-profit colleges, pledged to boost the number of students graduating from STEM programs by 10 percent next year. It also said it would specifically promote female participation in its STEM programs. 

A Carefully Orchestrated Affair

For many colleges, the summit serves as a chance to publicize their efforts to help students, with the imprimatur of the White House. Dozens of institutions on Thursday, for instance, raced to announce that their president would be heading to Washington for the event.

The presidential-level attention comes with some extra perks, too. As part of their invitation to the summit, the college leaders were also invited by the White House to attend the annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony this evening.

For the Obama administration, the summit is an opportunity to tout some good news in higher education.

“This summit marks a major milestone in expanding college access and, very importantly, completion for low-income and underrepresented students,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday. “We’re announcing significant new strategies and partnerships to advance college opportunity.”

The White House published a 211-page report outlining the more than 500 commitments it won from college leaders, companies, nonprofit organizations and other entities.

The summit has also been a carefully orchestrated affair, according to several people who participated in planning sessions with White House staffers. Many participants, for instance, were forbidden from publicly discussing the substance of their commitments until the morning of the event, though the White House encouraged them to promote their institution’s attendance at the event on social media on Tuesday by using the Twitter hashtag #collegeopportunity. Other participants said they were frustrated that the administration would not share which other groups and organizations planned to attend. 

Still, the summits have also served as a chance for the administration to build good will with the colleges and universities that it has, on other occasions, said need to be held more accountable for rising tuition, graduation rates, student employment outcomes, and, more recently, campus sexual assaults.

Thursday’s summit also comes as the Education Department prepares to soon release an outline of its plan to rate American colleges on certain metrics, which has drawn skepticism and opposition from many college leaders.

Duncan told reporters Tuesday that he would be making an announcement on the ratings system “probably by the end of the year, so the next couple weeks.” 





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