Opinion

College officials launch access and affordability programs at White House summit

By Patrick English '15

January 23, 2014

Last week, President Joan Hinde Stewart attended a summit at the White House focusing on low-income students’ access to higher education. Over 100 college officials and business insiders attended the summit, hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

As President Stewart explained, the meeting, originally intended for December, was pushed back after Nelson Mandela passed away so that the Obamas could attend the memorial service. The event opened with a dinner the night before, followed by an all-day summit with addresses from the President and the First Lady. The secretaries of labor and education were also in attendance, which was “indicative that this is something President Obama takes very seriously,” said Stewart.

At the summit, President Obama explained two goals for the program: To significantly increase the number of Americans going to college by 2020, and to reclaim the United States’ previous first-place ranking in college attainment by 2020. Collegiate and government officials would work together over the course of several meetings to achieve these goals.

The institutions are exploring many different paths due to the variety of different institutions. As President Stewart explained, “State universities, research colleges, Ivy League schools, technical institutes, community colleges, and liberal arts colleges attended the summit. The president is not prescribing any list of answers. No one program is right for all these different kinds of institutions, and that’s one of the wonderful things about American higher education, the variety of institutions. There’s something for everyone.”

As part of the summit, Hamilton added its name to a list of Over 100 New Commitments to Expand College Opportunity. The College Opportunity Commitments Report provides the names of the colleges, along with a brief summary of their attempts to help low-income students. Hamilton’s already established efforts, such as its two Posse programs and meeting 100 percent of students’ demonstrated need, set the College apart from other schools in terms of financial aid.

As a stipulation of its signature, Hamilton will raise $1.5 million to endow a “First-Year Forward” pilot program to help new students, with potential who demonstrate financial need, to obtain meaningful and exploratory career-related programs. Hamilton will also work to expand its Student Emergency Aid Society (SEAS), which supports emergency or exceptional needs for students who have significant financial barriers.

In a speech given at Syracuse University in August, President Obama spoke broadly on ideas to give low-income students more access to higher education. His ideas included a new college rating system provided by the U.S. government that would focus on affordability and graduation rates. Five months later, the White House has made some progress on this plan, but it still seems to be neither specific nor uniform. No two pledges in the report are alike, meaning that most colleges are continuing business as usual without significant checks or regulations from the government. However, President Stewart stressed that commitment and passion were the overwhelming similarities of the summit.

It will be interesting to see how this program progresses over the remaining three years of Obama’s presidency. If he makes good on his promise to dramatically decrease tuition, Hamilton will certainly feel the  affects. Despite its need-blind status, Hamilton still has one of the highest tuition rates in the country. Along with other benefits, Hamilton’s tuition pays the salary of our knowledgeable professors and helps with the upkeep of buildings and facilities. Major tuition decreases could result in many changes for the college, but at the current pace of this legislation Hamilton should not have to worry about this problem anytime soon.

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