President Obama summoned several university presidents and chancellors to his office today for an unusual two-hour session devoted to the economics of higher education.

The attendees seemed to have been chosen for their successes in improving the productivity of higher education. Maryland, for example, was represented by not one but two leaders: William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor of its state university system, and Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In terms of public higher education, Maryland seems to be on a roll. The state has made significant progress in narrowing racial disparities in graduation rates, particularly at UMBC and neighboring Towson University. The state froze tuition for four consecutive years at a time that every other state was raising it. Kirwan launched a system-wide efficiency campaign well before the downturn, reducing the need for further cuts when recession hit.

Hrabowski, for his part, has become one of the best-known university presidents in the nation, leading his campus to the top of the U.S. News rankings of “up-and-coming” institutions and those with the best undergraduate educational experience. UMBC was recently featured on “60 Minutes.”

“People are well aware around the country of the success we’ve had, along with the support from our governor and legislature,” said Hrabowski, who was speaking of the university system as much as his own institution. He spoke just after the meeting.

“Brit is seen as one of the national leaders in all these areas, and UMBC has become a model institution.”

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, meanwhile, has drawn praise for a program called Strive, a “cradle-to-career” initiative that has improved everything from kindergarten readiness to college graduation rates after five years.

Other attendees included Robert Mendenhall, president of Western Governors University, a private, nonprofit institution that rivals for-profits with its online, career-oriented programs. (Leaders of the for-profit sector released a statement expressing chagrin that no one from the sector was invited to the meeting.)

Zimpher said the topic of the round-table discussion was affordability and productivity in higher education. “And that’s code for how much does it cost to attend college, how are students dealing with those costs and that debt, how much are they graduating from college, and how much is their debt when the graduate from college?”

There seemed a sense of urgency to the meeting. Zimpher said that might reflect a rising sense among higher-education leaders that “the general public might be reaching the tipping point” in their ability and willingness to pay for college.

Also, the president has set a goal that America regain the world lead in college attainment by 2020, a target that only seems to draw further away.

The president asked good questions and listened attentively. If there was a specific aim to the meeting, Hrabowski said, it was his wish to hear “our ideas about ways of containing and cutting costs and educating more students.”

Zimpher: “A change of culture would probably be the summary philosophical point — creating policies that incentivize a change in culture.”