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January 17, 2014

College presidents take pictures of President Obama with their smartphones. (Michael Stratford via Twitter)

At the White House on Thursday, college presidents pledged to increase access for low-income minority students and to help them graduate without crushing debt. And initiatives adopted by some New England schools are gaining attention.

Speaking to some of the nation’s top educators, President Obama said the U.S. still has a long way to go to unlock the doors of higher education, especially for low-income students.

“We all have a stake in restoring that fundamental American ideal that says it doesn’t matter where you start, what matters is where you end up,” Obama said, shortly after college presidents took his picture with their smartphones.

And to make sure more nontraditional students end up with a college degree – and the skills needed to find a job – Obama asked college presidents to make new commitments – to help more young people go to and graduate from college.

“There’s a huge cohort of talent that we’re not tapping,” Obama said.

At the White House, many schools vowed to contact high-achieving, low-income students directly and to encourage them to apply

Smith College President Kathleen McCartney was among several Massachusetts college presidents who were invited. McCartney says Smith will partner with The Posse Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that helps groups of young people from the same high school attend the same college.

“They are a cohort and they support one another,” said McCartney, who was the first in her family to graduate from college. “We will have a posse from New York City. It will be 10 students per year, so when we’re up and running we’ll have 40 students.”

Last summer, President Obama proposed a plan that would tie certain outcomes like graduation rates to the amount of federal dollars colleges get. Since then, McCartney and other educators have widely rejected that idea.

“I think carrots work better than sticks,” she said. “I don’t think we want to punish schools that don’t have large endowments.”

Instead, McCartney says, the government should encourage schools to provide the kind of support for low-income students that actually gets them in and through college.

Other schools have said they are prepared to work more closely with the Department of Education. In Masscachusetts, Amherst College has pledged to enroll more Native American students, and Mount Holyoke College plans to award full-tuition scholarships to about 25 women who are at least 25 years old.

Read more commitments to action on college access in this exhaustive list from the White House:

president obama, increasing access and success, higher ed

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