WASHINGTON — More than 80 college presidents, including several from Massachusetts, gathered at a White House summit Thursday, each bearing promises about what they will do to increase access for low-income and minority students.
The meeting was part of an effort by President Obama and Michelle Obama to push educators to address the lack of opportunity for many young people who are short of money or preparation for college.
President Obama singled out Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College for pledging to help more incoming students catch up on their academics the summer before freshman year. Bunker Hill said it would double the size of its intensive summer English and math program to serve at least 900 students a year.
The presidents of Northeastern University, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, and Amherst College also attended the summit.
Some universities whose leaders did not attend the day-long meeting also made pledges.
In one of the more unusual initiatives, Tufts University said it would launch a program to help high school seniors take a year off to do community service before enrolling.
Crucially, Tufts said it would provide enough financial aid to make the “gap year,” already popular among affluent young people, affordable for all students, regardless of their ability to pay.
Obama, speaking to the audience of college presidents, business leaders, and philanthropists, vowed to fulfill a campaign promise to expand educational opportunities and take other steps to help more Americans enter the middle class.
Congress has been reluctant to pass many of Obama’s initiatives, so the president is increasingly focused on using his bully pulpit as he did Thursday. “I’ve got a pen to take executive actions where Congress won’t, and I’ve got a telephone to rally folks around the country on this mission,” he said.
He criticized college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT as anything but standardized, because low-
income students do not receive the same preparation as wealthier students, as did his own daughters, who receive college advice by seventh grade at their private prep school.
“It’s not fair,” Obama said, “and it’s gotten worse.”
Michelle Obama used her personal story to illustrate both the problem and the difference meaningful programs can make.
“The truth is that if Princeton hadn’t found my brother as a basketball recruit and if I hadn’t seen that he could succeed on a campus like that, it never would have occurred to me to apply to that school, never,” she said. “I know that there are so many kids out there just like me, kids who have a world of potential, but maybe their parents never went to college or maybe they’ve never been encouraged to believe they could succeed there.”
She said she arrived on the Princeton University campus feeling overwhelmed and isolated. She didn’t know anyone except her brother, Craig. She even brought the wrong-sized sheets, unaware of the extra-long beds in college dorms.
She credited a three-week orientation program and her peers at Princeton’s Third World Center with helping her acclimate to the Ivy League. Mrs. Obama said she ended up graduating at the top of her class.
Colleges have been taking heat in recent years, including from the president, for exploding tuition costs and uneven results. Using an executive action, Obama last year launched the online “college scorecard,” which lists schools on five factors, including tuition and graduation rates, to hold them accountable for cost, value, and quality.
But on Thursday, the focus was on celebrating the good things, large and small, that schools are doing, rather than taking them to task.
Education leaders are committed to combating social and economic inequality, and the president and his wife recognize that, Amherst College president Carolyn A. “Biddy” Martin said in an interview.
One of Amherst’s new pledges is to devote more resources to enrolling Native American students. There are currently “fewer than a handful” on campus, she said.
Mount Holyoke will begin awarding full tuition scholarships to the 25 to 30 women it enrolls each year who are at least 25 years old, an effort to make a private liberal arts education possible for nontraditional students.
Smith College, the first women’s college to have an engineering school, is one of several colleges newly joining with The Posse Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit, to help low-income students complete degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math at elite schools. Smith will enroll 10 students from New York City public schools who are pursuing those fields.
“I am where I am because I had access to a college education,” said Smith president Kathleen McCartney, who grew up in Medford, the daughter of a machinist and a homemaker, and who attended Tufts on financial aid. “It might have been otherwise, and it is otherwise for so many young people.”
Joseph Aoun, Northeastern president, said his university has invested $7 million to fund 150 full-tuition scholarships in 2014 for Boston public school graduates from low-income families who live in neighborhoods surrounding the university’s main campus. That is 30 more scholarships than in 2013.
With its initiative, Tufts becomes one of the first elite universities, joining Princeton and the University of North Carolina, to create a “gap year” program that provides financial aid.
What Tufts is calling the 1+4 program will “democratize” the gap year, the university said, allowing a more diverse group of students to volunteer in the United States or abroad.
Education experts and many college deans have increasingly promoted the idea of a year off between high school and college, to help students blow off steam, figure out what they want to study, and develop maturity by spending time in the real world.