WASHINGTON — His education agenda mired in Congress, President Barack Obama is urging university presidents to copy each other's best examples to expand access to higher education, highlighting his efforts to use presidential persuasion in the absence of legislation.
"More than ever a college degree is the surest path to a stable middle class life," Obama told more than 100 college and university presidents and the leaders of more than 40 nonprofit and other education groups who he summoned to the White House Thursday.
But he said the United States still has a long way to go to open the door to college for low-income Americans. Eager to put the White House's stature behind the effort, Obama was joined by first lady Michelle Obama, who urged schools to actively reach out to low-income high-schoolers to attract them to their campuses and to provide them with help once they decide to pursue a higher education.
"These kids are smart, they will notice if we're not holding up our end of the bargain," she said.
Both the president and the first lady spoke in personal terms, saying they benefited from a national commitment to expand opportunities for young people that led them to attend elite universities like Harvard and Princeton. But they said the current economy made a college education even more essential.
The president has emphasized education throughout his presidency but his efforts at overhauling the No Child Left Behind law or to provide universal pre-school to children have not passed in Congress. He's had a goal of having the United States achieve the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
The summit also heralds a new chapter in Obama's presidency in which he increasingly is turning to his own authority to carry out elusive policy priorities. With gridlock in Congress dampening prospects for passing laws, Obama has vowed to move forward on his own by using executive authority and by convening leaders from outside politics in pursuit of broad, national goals.
"We have to make sure there are new ladders of opportunity to the middle class," Obama said. "I'm working with Congress where I can to accomplish this. But I'm also going to take action on my own if Congress is deadlocked."
White House aides hope the strategy will give Obama more flexibility as he embarks on what he's labeled a "year of action." But it also calls attention to Obama's limited ability to drive sweeping changes in his second term, as Washington's focus turns increasingly to this year's midterm elections and the presidential election two years later.
The participating schools have agreed to take action in one of four areas:
—Helping low-income students connect with colleges that can meet their needs and then seeking to ensure that they graduate.
—Reaching out to elementary, middle and high school students in hopes that by engaging earlier, more students will be encouraged to pursue higher education.
—Boosting remedial programs so underprepared students will still have opportunities to succeed.
—Seeking to ensure lower-income students aren't disadvantaged by lack of access to college advisers and inability to prepare for entrance exams like the SAT and ACT.
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"However much inequality and opportunity there is by the time kids get to 11th grade, those of us who are more fortunate exacerbate that inequality out of a desire to do what's best for our kids. We spend enormous time with college counselors, enormous time in SAT-ACT preparation," said Gene Sperling, director of the White House's National Economic Council. "Those things are not available for lower-income kids."
Georgia State University is committing to rolling out an "early alert system" aimed at identifying students at risk of dropping out for financial reasons. By monitoring students who are running out of aid eligibility, losing scholarship dollars or paying bills late, the university plans to deploy financial counselors to intervene to help those students stay enrolled.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this article