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Today at the White House, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted an event featuring education, nonprofit, and business leaders from around the country. The gathering, titled “Expanding College Opportunity,” was essentially a forum used to discuss ways in easing the burdens of prospective college students and the importance of education.

The summit has been gaining a lot of traction in the press, and the gathering of college leaders is marked with a hint of controversy. Education reform has been part of the president’s agenda of late and Obama has caught the criticism of private college presidents regarding his college ratings system proposal. However, today’s gathering was largely positive as panelists laid out new policy plans and aims to improve the process for students and faculty.

Troy Simon, a young African American man from New Orleans, introduced the First Lady. Simon, who didn’t learn how to read until he was 14, shared his inspiring story of rising up from the depths of poverty after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and how education saved him. Simon is now a student at Bard University studying American Literature, and credits the Posse Foundation for his current success.

First Lady Obama addressed summit attendees ahead of her husband, chronicling her own struggles with entering and adjusting to college as an undergrad at the prestigious Princeton University. In her typically humble fashion, Mrs. Obama breezed through her accomplishments and pointed the rest of her speech to the importance of young people embracing academics with the fervor that she and the president pledge to follow up with a series of initiatives and actions.

President Obama took the podium next, and cracked a few customary jokes about following the First Lady before turning to the matter at hand.

“More than ever, a college degree is the surest path to a stable middle class life,” Obama said to over 100 college and university presidents and 40 nonprofit and education leaders.

“We need to do more to make sure rising tuition doesn’t price the middle class out of a college education,” the president also stated. With rising college costs and increasing push back from lawmakers, Obama vowed to work with Congress but also said he will use his power was well.

“We have to make sure there are new ladders of opportunity to the middle class,” said Obama. “I’m going to be working with Congress where I can to accomplish this. And I’m also going to act on my own if Congress is deadlocked.”

There are a series of complex strategies being developed by the partner schools and organizations in this uptick in providing college opportunities. The leaders are agreeing to provide better assistance to struggling students, promote the benefits of higher education as early as elementary school and helping low-income students learn more about college as they prepare to graduate.

Read the White House report on Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students here.

Read the list of Commitments to Action on College Opportunity here.

Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College, expressed how difficult it is for families to pay for higher education on “NewsOne Now.” “Fifty percent of black families have income less than 440,000 a year,” she said. “You can’t send your child to college if your income is $40,000 a year. It’s very difficult for that and you certainly can’t pay it out of your income. When we think about the number of families that have incomes within the African American community above $200,000, less than one percent of African Americans fit that description.”

Lezli Baskeville, president and CEO, NAFEO, believes that black students who attend HBCUs have a better advantage. “These institutions educate disproportionate percentages of low income students,” said Baskerville, “about 62 percent of our colleges and university students are Pell [Grant] eligible students, low income students. HBCUs have developed over the years substantial models that are working with measurable results that has resulted in our students graduating 40 percent of African Americans.”

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