- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2014

As part of a larger plan to work around a recalcitrant Congress, President Obama went after rising college tuition costs by charging an “admission” fee to the more than 100 university leaders who attended Thursday’s summit on the issue at the White House.

That fee for attendees came in the form of agreeing to start or expand programs that met the administration’s approval, resulting in potentially significant changes to how institutions of higher education do business.

“This began several months ago with individual phone calls. I’m told that every one of the campus presidents and chancellors here today had at least a half-hour call from [National Economic Council Director] Gene Sperling … asking us to consider coming together and telling us the price of admission was new commitments, adding activities that we hadn’t already heretofore engaged in,” Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, told reporters on Thursday afternoon.


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The White House clearly was not shy in revealing that Ms. Zimpher’s institution, and all others who attended the daylong summit, were required to take action on college costs for the privilege of attending. She was brought to the press briefing room by White House press secretary Jay Carney and spent about 15 minutes answering questions.

In fact, the president himself boasted of the fact that he was able to enact real change using just a phone and the persuasive power of his office — the latest step in what Mr. Obama has dubbed “a year of action,” with or without Congress.

“Today is a great example of how, without a whole bunch of new legislation, we can advance this agenda,” the president said. “We’ve got philanthropists and business leaders here. We’ve got leaders of innovative not-for-profits. We’ve got college presidents — from state universities and historically black colleges to Ivy League universities and community colleges. And today, more than 100 colleges and organizations are announcing new commitments to help more young people not only go to, but graduate from college. And that’s an extraordinary accomplishment, and we didn’t pass a bill to do it.”


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Institutions’ specific changes differ greatly.

Ms. Zimpher’s SUNY system will launch a new outreach program to low-income students through partnerships with community organizations. The New York schools also will create a “one-stop learning center for financial literacy,” among other steps, according to White House documents detailing the schools’ commitments.

The University of Maryland intends to expand its “Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success” program, which identifies low-income students with college potential as early as 10th grade and provides them with academic coaching and support.

The University of California System will undertake new efforts “that enhance the flow of community college students” to its institutions, the administration said.

Nonprofits, businesses and philanthropic organizations also made commitments to the White House.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for example, announced a five-year, $65 million program whereby research universities can “develop effective strategies” to attract and retain students in the science, engineering, technology and math fields.

“Everybody here is participating, I believe, because you know that college graduation has never been more valuable than it is today,” Mr. Obama, joined by first lady Michelle Obama, told the participants at Thursday’s summit.