Obama and first lady Michelle Obama joined higher education leaders to announce more than 100 new commitments to expand college opportunities.
More than 100 colleges and universities, and 40 businesses and organizations, announced new commitments to serve hundreds of thousands of low-income students across the country seeking a post-secondary education, the White House said in a release.
"We've got to make sure that we're creating new jobs and that the wages and benefits that go along with those jobs can support a family. We have to make sure that there are new ladders of opportunity into the middle class" and accessible to more people, Obama said during the event.
He pledged to work with Congress to accomplish the goal, but would act on his own if Congress were deadlocked.
"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," Obama said.
Among the actions the institutions and groups were asked to support Thursday were initiatives that:
-- Connect more low-income students to the college that is right for them, ensuring more graduate.
-- Increase the pool of students preparing for college through early interventions.
-- Level the playing field in college advising and college-entrance test preparation.
-- Strengthen remediation to help academically under-prepared students advance and complete college.
Obama said higher education institutions, businesses and organizations were participating in Thursday's event because "you know that college graduation has never been more valuable than it is today. ... [More] than ever, a college degree is the surest path to a stable, middle-class life."
More needs to be done, such as hiring good teachers and paying them better, Obama said, and ensuring high school curricula are maximizing the changes for success, and to ensure that college is affordable.
"So, if we as a nation can expand opportunity and reach out to those young people and help them not just go to college but graduate from college or university, it could have a transformative effect," Obama said. "There is this huge cohort of talent that we're not tapping."
Speaking specifically to young people, Michelle Obama said she encourages them "to take charge of their futures and complete an education beyond high school."
"[So] often when we talk about education, we talk about our young people and what we need to do for them," she said. "We talk about the programs we need to create for them, about the resources we need to devote to them."
In the end, "the person who has the most say over whether or not a student succeeds is the student him or herself," she said. "Ultimately, they are the ones sitting in that classroom. They're the ones who have to set goals for themselves and work hard to achieve those goals every single day."
Michelle Obama said students who overcome circumstances such as absentee parents, or crime- or drug-infested neighborhoods, "have developed skills like grit and resilience that many of their peers will never be able to compete with -- never. And when they get out into the world, those are the exact skills they will need to succeed. And they will succeed."
"Time and again you all have shown that you have the experience, the passion and the resources to help these young people thrive," she said.
Before the event, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling said during a conference call, "We do not have a more clear ladder of economic mobility than the attainment of a college degree."
Jim Garrison, president of Ubiquity University of Mill Valley, Calif. -- a virtual and brick-and-mortar university gearing up to offer a $10,000 bachelor's degree in the fall -- told United Press International Thursday "the critical need now is not for industrial workers but for creative leaders able to think outside the very system that produced them."
Garrison provided UPI with part of a white paper in which he cites 2010 and 2012 IBM Corp. surveys of 1,700 chief executive officers and 3,600 students in 60 countries.
"Topping the list of what global CEOs and students are looking for as they face the future are creative thinking, the capacity to collaborate, the capacity to communicate effectively, the capacity to be open, flexible and empathetic, and express global perspectives," the paper said.
"Simple technical and mathematical knowledge -- that which our schools are currently designed to teach and with which our accrediting agencies are concerned -- ranked ninth and 10th on the list," the paper says.