By Roberta Rampton and Elvina Nawaguna
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Drawing on their own stories as kids from families of modest means who used education to succeed, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama enlisted colleges and universities on Thursday to do more to help low-income students get into college.
"I'm doing this because that story of opportunity through education is the story of my life," Michelle Obama said.
The first lady, whose parents did not go to college, said she felt "a little overwhelmed and a little isolated" when she landed at Princeton.
"I didn't know anyone on campus except my brother. I didn't know how to pick the right classes or find the right buildings. I didn't even bring the right size sheets for my dorm room bed," she said, drawing laughs from the crowd of more than 80 college and university presidents and chancellors.
The event was part of the president's pledge to try to narrow the gap between rich and poor, a politically popular theme expected to dominate his State of the Union address on January 28.
Obama has been unable to get some of his major initiatives approved by a sharply divided Congress and has pledged to maximize use of his powers of persuasion to advance his goals.
The White House event is an example of that approach. Gene Sperling, Obama's top economic aide, worked with educational leaders to get them to promise to take concrete steps to help more students prepare for and get good advice on getting into college.
The list describing the projects, released by the White House on Thursday, runs more than 80 pages.
Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York, said her institution will serve 100,000 more students over the next three years, an increase of 20 percent.
"We want to increase our access for traditional college-age students and, importantly, adults who have no education beyond high school who are simply not going to make the grade if they can't get jobs that require a college degree," Zimpher told reporters.
Obama recounted how his single mom pushed him to study harder, and how he "just barely remembered to bring a pencil" to take the SAT standardized college admissions test.
Low-income kids get less help preparing for the tests and less help figuring out how and where to apply for college, he said.
He contrasted that with his daughters, Malia and Sasha, ages 15 and 12, who already are getting advice at their private school about how to prepare for getting into college.
"The degree of preparation that many of our kids here are getting in advance of actually taking this test tilts the playing field," he said. "It's not fair. And it's gotten worse."
Students born into families that are in the bottom 25 percent of income have only a 9 percent chance of graduating from college. By contrast, students born into families in the top 25 percent of income have a 54 percent chance of getting a degree.
Colleges also promised to do more to help low-income students once they get into college - something Michelle Obama said was critical to her success.
She said she met students at the campus cultural center at Princeton who were going through a similar culture shock.
"They were there to answer the questions I was too embarrassed to ask anyone else," the first lady said.
"If it weren't for those resources and the friends and the mentors, I honestly don't know how I would have made it through college. But instead, I graduated at the top of my class, I went to law school - and you know the rest," she said.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Elvina Nawaguna; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oais)