UVM president Tom Sullivan spent yesterday in the company of other presidents, including one rather famous one. Sullivan was a guest of the White House at an invitation-only summit on higher education access. The presidents of 80 colleges attended, all of whom made commitments to develop new programs or enhance existing ones that would expand access to lower-income students.

In between two working sessions on Jan. 16 – the conference opened Jan. 15 -- President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama addressed the presidents for about an hour.

The UVM program Sullivan highlighted was an existing one that will be enhanced, called the New Americans program. Its goal is to increase the enrollment, and eventual timely graduation, of students from families who have immigrated from abroad to Vermont, including many who are refugees. 

The program will include outreach to families with a focus on early college awareness and on the extensive financial aid UVM provides to students with financial need.

The goal is to “identify students and families and then to give them a very high touch personal approach so that they fully grasp all the steps involved in applying to college and seeking financial aid,” Sullivan said. “We want them to feel comfortable and confident that when they apply, they will be able to understand the pathway to a successful college experience, including a timely graduation."

Sullivan added that the White House was looking for program ideas that not only brought low-income students to college, but also promoted graduation in four years.

Sullivan said that UVM’s record of recruiting lower-income students to the university, even before the expanded New Americans program, was a good one and impressed many of the other presidents. About one-third of resident Vermont students are both Pell eligible and first generation. About 45 percent of Vermonters attend the university tuition-free because UVM grants and scholarships.

Overall, it was an inspiring day-and-a-half, the president said, “particularly the fact that the president and the first lady spent over an hour with us talking very eloquently about the national need to open up the pipeline for students from lower incomes and to make sure that they’re successful through college, because that translates to success later in life." They also spoke “about their own backgrounds and the difficulties of understanding all the nuances of applying to colleges.”

Sullivan said he was sitting close to members of the press corps, and several told him the that the conference must be an important one.

“And I said, well, I believe it is, but why do you ask?" Sullivan said. “And they said, It's very rare in Washington for both the president and the first lady to be together on the same stage, to see them both speaking, and to spend this much time with the gathering. This signals to us that the president is very serious about this issue.” 

Sullivan added, "There is a clear anticipation that the president will share his views on this topic next week in his State of the Union address." 


Jeffrey R. Wakefield