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Close to 200 leaders from colleges, universities and organizations dedicated to higher education went to the White House today. They all met with President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama. They were there to discuss how to raise the number of low-income students who attend college. No more than half of low-income high school graduates apply, so the president has asked the first lady to spearhead a national effort.

As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, the idea is to encourage selective colleges to admit and graduate more poor students.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: President Obama opened the meeting laughing, joking, then pointing out more seriously...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that's at the heart of America.

SANCHEZ: To that end, the president said, young people, low-income students in particular, must have access to a college education. He was preaching to the choir; after all, every institution and organization present had to show up with a plan to help needy students into college.

Eric W. Kaler, president of the University of Minnesota, promised to offer more financial aid and advice to kids from poor communities. Admitting these students, says Kaler, doesn't mean you have to lower your standards.

ERIC W. KALER: I'm proud of the fact that we don't accept students at the University of Minnesota who we don't project to succeed. We look for the potential.

SANCHEZ: Nonprofit groups say they're ready to help more students navigate the Byzantine college application and financial aid process. Jim McCorkel, president of College Possible, submitted a plan to reach out to 20,000 students in Nebraska, Oregon, Wisconsin, Minnesota and soon Pennsylvania.

JIM MCCORKEL: But one of the big issues that the Obama administration is highlighting, and its a big problem for America, is what's called undermatching, where low income students, instead of going to a four-year college or a school that would be a good academic fit for them, they just go to the local community college. Sometimes that's the right fit but many times it's not.

SANCHEZ: The only governor in attendance was Delaware's Jack Markell, a Democrat. He says enrolling more low-income students in public institutions is a costly proposition, given the huge cuts in state funding for higher education in recent years. But the nation's economy, says Markell, cannot afford to lose bright young people just because they're poor. He says his plan, in partnership with the college board and several Ivy League schools, is already helping a thousand of these students get into college.

GOVERNOR JACK MARKELL: They're low income students who are probably not going to apply absent our intervention.

SANCHEZ: But there are two big problems that hit these kids especially hard, says Jim McCorkel, president of College Possible: spiraling tuition cost and student debt.

MCCORKEL: When you look at the average student loan debt in America, it's approaching $30,000, so something has got to be done. The question is what's driving tuition up at a rate so much greater than inflation?

SANCHEZ: People in attendance say everybody tip-toed around that question during the long-day panel discussions. Administration officials insisted on discussing college access, saying that the administration is tackling the college cost issue separately.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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