President Obama announced new measures with colleges across the country to expand access for low-income students, touting the effort as a successful initiative that didn't rely on congressional action.
“We want to make sure more young people have a chance at a higher education,” said Obama on Thursday at a White House summit, announcing the new commitments from more than 100 colleges and 40 educational institutions.
The president, whose legislative agenda was stalled on Capitol Hill last year, has vowed that 2014 will be a “year of action” and has vowed to use executive actions where lawmakers fail to act.
Obama said the higher education push was a “great example” of how the administration could act without “a whole bunch of new legislation.”
“I'm going to work with Congress where I can to accomplish this but I’m also going to act on my own if Congress is deadlocked,” said Obama.
“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 added.
A number of universities have signed up for the effort to ensure that low-income students can more easily enroll in top institutions and to see that they graduate.
The measures include remedial education for middle and high school students, as well as ramped up tutoring and test preparation for students in college. The College Board will also grant fee waivers for eligible students who take the SAT college-entrance exam.
The president said that the steps to provide more help to high school students had brought the dropout rate to its lowest point in 40 years and that grant aid was being doubled to open colleges to more students.
Obama said the education initiative was part of his effort to tackle income inequality, arguing that college had long provided a ladder for low-income Americans to rise into the middle class.
“The fact is it's been getting harder to do that for a lot of people,” Obama said. “It is harder for folks to start in one place and — and move up that ladder. And that was true long before the recession hit.”
The president, though, said that more needed to be done, criticizing standardized tests which some say disadvantage poor or minority applicants.
“We don’t have a level playing field when it comes to so-called standardized tests,” said the president. “It’s not fair and its gotten worse.”
Obama also vowed to help combat rising tuition prices that threaten to “price the middle class out of a college education.”
Striking a personal note, the president said that both him and first lady Michelle Obama, who also spoke at the event, had benefitted from the nation’s commitment to make college more accessible.
“Every child in America should have the same change,” said the president.
White House correspondent Brian Hughes contributed to this report.