Transcript & Video of Chancellor Zimpher's White House Press Briefing

January 17, 2014


January 16, 2014; James S. Brady Press Briefing Room


12:25 P.M. EST

MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here. I hope you all had a chance to either attend or watch the President's event on college opportunity. As you know, President Obama has pledged that even as he continues to look for areas of bipartisan cooperation, he will not wait for Congress to act to get things done for the American people. The President has made clear time and again that in the United States the outcomes of your life should not be determined by the circumstances of your birth.

As we know, there's no better ladder to economic opportunity than a college degree. But we also know there is much more we can do to ensure that every child, rich or poor, has access to a quality college education so they can get ahead. So today, the President and First Lady are bringing together college and university presidents, business and philanthropic leaders, and other stakeholders at the White House to announce as they just did over 100 new meaningful commitments to expand college opportunity.

Today's commitments are the result of a call to action the administration had issued to participants in advance of the event to help us address the following key areas. One, connecting more low-income students to the school that is right for them and ensuring more students graduate. Two, increasing the pool of students preparing for college through early interventions. Three, leveling the playing field in college advising and test preparation. And four, seeing breakthroughs in remedial education.

I know that the President, the First Lady, and those involved in organizing this event were extremely gratified by the enthusiastic response to the call to action, the commitments that have been made. And as a special guest today, I have with me Nancy Zimpher; she is the chancellor of the State University of New York system. She is a participant in today's event and I'd like her to speak to you at the top, and then if you have questions for her as somebody who is living and breathing this every day, we'll do those at the top, and then let her go and I'll remain for questions on other subjects.

With that, I give you the Chancellor of the State University of New York system.

CHANCELLOR ZIMPHER: Thank you. Well, good afternoon, everybody. I am thrilled to represent the over 80 presidents and chancellors who were in the house to hear the President and the First Lady speak to this ambitious agenda. What I liked about the crowd is that it was filled with community colleges, elite private institutions, land-grant institutions, comprehensive colleges -- both public and private -- really making a personal and campus commitment to this goal.

What I know is that the President has been on this agenda for quite a while, this really ambitious goal by 2020 that we will be first in the world in terms of college graduates. Two years ago, he brought a small group of about 12 university presidents and chancellors together to challenge us on these issues and I was part of that. And happily, this August, the President came to New York -- to Buffalo and to Binghamton -- to announce this agenda of more affordability -- and he has really pounded us on the cost of college; accountability -- that we have outcomes that we can prove we're making progress and innovations.

So I was told I could say a little bit about SUNY, the State University of New York. And two days ago, we announced a thing called “Open SUNY” -- we already have 465,000 students whom we serve, but we will grow another 100,000 over the next three years because we want to increase our access for traditional college-age students and, importantly, adults who have no education beyond college who are simply not going to make the grade if they can't get jobs that require a college degree.

So let me just say briefly what we've been talking about amongst these very enthusiastic presidents and the commitments they've made. We're talking about access -- fundamentally reaching students where they live in the early grades. We've been talking about early childhood to elementary school to high school, a lot of emphasis on these early college high schools where low-income students from urban and rural areas can get all the tutoring and advising they need, prepare them for the college admissions tests. So that's been big in our conversations -- not just the universities, but grassroots organizations that are forming cohorts of students to go to college and support each other.

And then it's been said over and over again, once you get to college, our responsibility is to get you graduated. So completion has been a huge issue, and we know that that takes a lot of support for the killer courses that are hard and that maybe students haven't taken enough math, they're not ready for English, they're not ready for the science courses. So during college, we have to support them. We do a lot of online tutoring as well and online mentoring to reach our students.

And then one of the things we do at SUNY that we like a lot is talk about success being something after completion, which really means you get a job, and we do that through internships and co-op and that kind of thing.

So let me just close by saying the President said just in this speech this is a “year of action” -- the year of action -- his plan to spend the next three years. What I think it's going to take is these thousand points of light, these really thousands of points of light where everybody is doing work in this direction. But knit it together into a collective set of very data-based, evidenced, collective impact so that we can see these big numbers move through our system and reach our 2020 goal.

So thank you.

MR. CARNEY: Questions for the Chancellor? Christi.

Q) Could you talk a little bit about the call to action? How did the White House reach out to you? And what are the universities doing that you might not have otherwise been doing here?

CHANCELLOR ZIMPHER: Well, I think the call to action sort of started quite a while ago when this ambitious 2020 goal emerged. And as I said, there have been several of these small group conferences -- conversations where we've actually come to the West Wing and met with the President, met with Vice President Biden.

But this began several months ago with individual phone calls. I am told that every one of the campus presidents and chancellors here today had at least a half-hour call from Gene Sperling, who does economic development for the White House, asking us to consider coming together and telling us the price of admission was new commitments, adding activities that we hadn't already heretofore engaged in.

So that's why I mention this massive online program at SUNY. I have also heard people commit to go into the schools with their students to help students in high school fill out the FAFSA form. I've heard today about ideas around cohorts, that once you get to, say, a highly selective college you need a cohort of support, a posse of support. So that's another idea. We're trying to bring down remediation by giving students more help as they plan their high school curriculum and take more math courses. The College Board, ACT, they're represented today, and we've heard that they are partnering with the state of Delaware and with other campuses to actually get students ready for these tests. We talked the other day at SUNY about a universal PSAT in the 10th grade. So we have a really good diagnostic early on to make a difference.

So that and hundreds more of the ideas. And the President invited -- beyond the people here today and the hundred commitments -- to send more, that there be more action in this regard.

MR. CARNEY: Major.

Q) What's, in your opinion, the main driver in the last 20 years in college tuition costs? Anyone who has any experience with that -- and I do -- sees sticker shock with this. (Laughter.) What's been driving it, and what are the most innovative ideas you have seen to drive down those costs? And how much is online education teaching kids online at home as opposed to a structured college campus going to play in that in the future?

CHANCELLOR ZIMPHER: Well, I think, since so much of our work -- 85 to 90 percent of a university is the people who serve it. So the costs of employing and managing this massive personnel structure has driven costs in many respects.

I think -- what I've heard today, what I heard last night when the presidents were together is that universities are embracing a smarter business model, if you will; shared services; the kind of procurement. And the thing I liked about it the best -- and this is true at SUNY, as well -- every dollar we save on smart-sourcing or group procurement or sharing positions, bringing down the administrative overhead, is being cranked into student services. So our goal at SUNY is $100 million a year in tightening our belt and put that $100 million to student services and more faculty supports.

So I think that's going to make a big difference in New York. We also have a five-year tuition plan that's affordable and predictable, and we are a very low-tuition state, so we're trying to control tuition that way.

MR. CARNEY: Jon-Christopher.

Q) As a product of the City University of New York, and as an adjunct at Georgetown, what I think you're doing is extremely terrific. However, problem -- I'm asking you, Chancellor -- you are doing so much remedial work within the system. Where are the high schools and where is K-12 failing so these students don't come to you, and you have to basically start -- in many cases, start a few years back?

MS. ZIMPHER: Well, I am glad you mentioned. We've made a really frontal attack on remediation. It's paying twice. It's unnecessary. You take more remedial courses; the more you take, the less you chance you will complete. So it's just a rabbit run in the wrong direction. But we've tried really hard not to just point the finger at high schools. I say so often, we prepare the teachers who teach the kids who come to college, ready or not. We own this challenge as universities, because we prepare 5,000 teachers a year at SUNY.

So I think what we need, first of all, is a better understanding of what it takes to do good college work. I think the Common Core will get us there. We are in conversation with our K-12 colleagues to get that done.

Secondly, we are adopting, if you will, high schools called early-college high schools -- some are called new-tech high schools, some are called P-TECH high schools -- where we're actually teaching in those high schools with the idea that students graduate high school with college credit. And we're finding, especially in low-income high schools, that if we are with them, if we are systematically partnering with these high school faculty, that we can get a student to college ready to take the college-level courses. I have heard over and over again, last night and today, university commitments to better partnership with our K-12 colleagues, and I think that's going to be responded to in the President's agenda. I've already heard Secretary Duncan tell us how we can do that better and have more impact.

So I'm very optimistic.


Q) Chancellor, what about the connection between, as our economy changes, the demands for the information technology? And are kids graduating from college today with the skills that companies need and are looking for today?

CHANCELLOR ZIMPHER: Well, my favorite answer -- and I've had a lot of practice at this because I love cooperative education and internships that are supervised, paid for, and lead to a successful job placement. So one of the things we're trying to do at SUNY is take co-op to scale, make it accessible to every student. And what I mean by that is during the course of your college curriculum, you have a bona fide work-based, applied-learning opportunity, hopefully a paid opportunity.

And what we know from co-op over the years: If you have that experience, it's supervised, it's high-quality work, not just going to get the coffee, and you are an important asset of that company, in all likelihood -- in fact, the figure is 90 percent opportunity -- you will get offered a job in one of those places where you co-op'ed. That's kind of supply and demand in higher education that we can make work with our business partners.

And I think it's a solution. Like everything else you're going to hear about, we can't just be a thousand points of light. We have to get to scale. There are so many good things happening, but it's 5,000 here, or a campus there. And I think the greatest challenge of this campaign and this mobilization is how we can collectively focus on a few interventions, that we have the evidence and the data that we know work, and take it to scale. I hope that's a recipe for success in this campaign.


Q) Thank you, Jay. Madam Chancellor, some years back, several United States senators, including Senator Alexander of Tennessee, himself a former Secretary of Education, spoke of the need for trade schools and that there should be some emphasis on it. Was there discussion or even participation of trade schools at today's conference? And what do you agree -- what do you think of that opinion?

CHANCELLOR ZIMPHER: Well, it takes a village, so I know this is repetitive over time, but I think we feel we have to be open to all pathways. So if, when we transitioned vocational and technical education we threw the baby out with the bath, we need to reexamine what our technical and vocational schools are doing. There are some technical universities -- colleges, post-secondary colleges in the house today, but not the high school vo-tech. In New York, we have an interesting structure where these intermediary vo-tech services help bridge the gap.

So I wouldn't rule anything out, and if what we need to do is go back and reexamine what some of our vocational-technical programs did years ago -- school to work, you remember all this -- maybe some of that needs to come back into our equation.

MR. CARNEY: Chancellor, thank you very much.

CHANCELLOR ZIMPHER: Thank you. (Laughter.) I'm glad to move on. Thank you.

MR. CARNEY: I think you'd make a great White House Press Secretary. (Laughter.)

Well, thank you all very much, and again, thank Dr. Zimpher for participating today both in the event with other college presidents and chancellors and philanthropies and businesses, with the President and First Lady, and here today in the briefing. I don't have any other announcements to make so I'll go to your questions.

Watch the full press briefing below:

About the State University of New York
The State University of New York is the largest comprehensive system of higher education in the United States, and more than 95 percent of all New Yorkers live within 30 miles of any one of SUNY’s 64 colleges and universities. Across the system, SUNY has four academic health centers, five hospitals, four medical schools, two dental schools, a law school, the country’s oldest school of maritime, the state’s only college of optometry, and manages one US Department of Energy National Laboratory. In total, SUNY serves about 1.4 million students amongst its entire portfolio of credit- and non-credit-bearing courses and programs, continuing education, and community outreach programs. SUNY oversees nearly a quarter of academic research in New York. Research expenditures system-wide are nearly $1.1 billion in fiscal year 2023, including significant contributions from students and faculty. There are more than three million SUNY alumni worldwide, and one in three New Yorkers with a college degree is a SUNY alum. To learn more about how SUNY creates opportunities, visit

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