W&J president attends White House education summit

January 16, 2014
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Washington & Jefferson College President Tori Haring-Smith stands in front of the White House during an education summit in November.
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Dr. Tori Haring-Smith

Washington & Jefferson College President Tori Haring-Smith spent Thursday at the White House to discuss with other college presidents and top administration officials how to make higher education more affordable for low-income students.

The daylong “education summit” brought together 80 college presidents from select liberal arts colleges, flagship state schools and various community colleges to figure out what should be done to reach out to students who need significant financial help and how to make them aware of available grants and scholarships.

“We’ve been doing it in a way that was completely invisible to students and parents who needed to know we were doing this,” Haring-Smith said Thursday night while traveling back from Washington, D.C. “Many (low-income) students who would love to come to W&J are very capable … and they look at the sticker price and just pass. They don’t even try.”

The discussions included several top administrative officials, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama each spent about 20 minutes with the group.

“Everyone is realizing how important this is because we don’t have a workforce that is globally competitive,” Haring-Smith said.

She said there are several programs and grants for students who wish to attend a selective school – W&J offers $23 million in financial aid each year – but the message is not getting through to those in need. She specifically pointed to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, which offers various tuition funding to students depending on income levels and other factors.

Haring-Smith added the lack of awareness for these grants prompts many students from poorer families to stop thinking about a college education by eighth grade because of the costs.

“That is a tragic thing,” she said. “There are many kids in eighth grade who can go to college and make it.”

One of the ideas expressed during the summit was for colleges to pay for parents to attend “admission events” so they can learn financial aid options. Other discussions surrounded colleges working closer with high school guidance counselors or pushing for parents to be able to file FASFA forms sooner.

The group was asked to formulate more ideas over the next few days and submit them to the White House. Haring-Smith said she expects to hear some of the issues discussed during the summit in Obama’s State of the Union speech Jan. 28.

“It was tremendously exciting,” Haring-Smith said. “I think everyone’s expectations were extremely high.”

She expects to return to the White House for subsequent events later this year as they try to formulate “concrete goals” for enrollment numbers for low-income students. In addition to W&J College’s participation in the forum, Western Pennsylvania was also represented at the summit by Carnegie Mellon University administrators

Mike Jones has been a news reporter since 2005, covering crime, state and municipal government, education and energy. In addition to working at the Observer-Reporter, he also has spent time at the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail and Patch.com. He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

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