At White House summit, business leaders commit to improving college access too

WASHINGTON President Barack Obama welcomed representatives from more than 100 universities and organizations to the White House in January for a high-profile summit designed to spur improved college access for low-income students.

Mixed in with the college presidents and philanthropists were a handful of business leaders, including executives from Chegg, iMentor, Khan Academy, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and Pearson. Other businesses, like the textbook publisher McGraw-Hill Education, said they were aware of the event but did not attend.

“This was really a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of people,” said Greg Tobin, Pearson’s president of higher education English, mathematics, and student success, who attended the summit. “The president and the first lady gave a call of action to everyone, and energized folks, letting them know that there is a mission here. The country is depending on them.”

Along with the 109 colleges and universities, the companies were asked to make specific commitments to improving college access for low-income students.

Pacific Gas & Electric will commit $1 million to high school redesign programs. Khan Academy is creating a college advising section geared to “high-potential, low-income students.” Pearson’s commitment will come in the form of a three-year pledge to help 50 colleges and universities analyze how low-income students learn.

“A lot of these students don’t even apply to college, even if they might score a 1200 on their SATs,” Tobin said. “It’s a bit of a quandary.”

Dan Rosensweig, chief executive officer of Chegg, said the summit also focused on how to help students put their education to good use once they graduate. To that end, the textbook rental service and “student hub” is partnering with the website Internships.com to simplify the process of finding and preparing for internships.

“Corporate America has a critical role to play in solving for better student outcomes, and we are asking every company to commit to offering more and better paid internships to college grads, along with asking the White House to promote a commitment from companies to establish more internships,” Rosensweig said.

The summit, which was originally scheduled for mid-December, was just one of several events organized by the Obama administration in January that focused on education.

Earlier the same week, about 60 “education stakeholders” joined Michelle Obama at the White House for a screening of the film “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete,” a movie about struggling inner-city school children. That same day, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan played host to a gathering of more than 600 educators, business leaders, and data scientists at the second annual White House Education Datapalooza.

“Higher education has never been more important,” Duncan said at the assembly. “And never been more expensive.”

In the days ahead of the summit, some institutions who declined the White House’s invite dismissed the event as a “superficial” publicity stunt.

But those in attendance said they saw the gathering as a rare moment of unity among disparate groups that share a sometimes conflicting interest in higher education — a symbolic start to action that they hope will bring about major changes for students.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done from employers, universities, the administration, and students,” Rosensweig said. “The higher education ecosystem won’t be fixed in a day, but hopefully the summit will be viewed in hindsight as a moment in time where the country’s energy and effort became focused in a sustaining way.”

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