President Obama praised education leaders for what they've done to expand college access for lower income youth, but challenged them to do more. (The Associated Press)

President Obama and the first lady met with dozens of higher-education leaders at the White House on Thursday to promote an array of new measures that colleges and others are taking to get more students from poor families into college.

Many of the nation’s schools are under financial strain because of mounting costs and stagnating enrollment. Ensuring that aid for needy students keeps pace with rising tuition — or expands — is a complex challenge. But there was consensus among the president, first lady Michelle Obama and the educators they convened: Little things matter — a lot.

Giving students informed advice on college options. Letting them apply free of charge to multiple schools. Ensuring they fill out financial aid forms to get the grants they deserve. Keeping in touch through text messages.

“You all can take simple steps that can determine whether these kids give up and drop out, or step up and thrive,” the first lady told educators in an auditorium at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

The president applauded what the White House said are new commitments from more than 100 colleges and 40 organizations for initiatives to help needy students. No new federal funding was required.

“That’s an extraordinary accomplishment,” Obama said. “And we didn’t pass a bill to do it.”

The college initiatives fit into a broader effort this year at the White House to narrow inequality and increase the odds that a poor child will be able to climb out of poverty. Obama has called improving opportunity and shrinking the wage gap “the defining challenge of our times,” and White House officials note that college degrees are critical in that effort.

“We do not have a more clear ladder of economic mobility than the attainment of a college degree for someone born into a low-income family,” said National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling in a conference call about the college announcement.

The president and first lady were accompanied on stage by Troy Simon, a young man from New Orleans who said that only a few years ago he barely knew how to read and was tap-dancing in the French Quarter to earn money. But Simon said he resolved to learn and got help from groups such as the Urban League College Track and the Posse Foundation. Now he is a sophomore at Bard College on a full scholarship.

Obama said he was struck by the huge college-preparation inequities that he observes first-hand as the father of two students at a prestigious private school.

“Malia and Sasha, by the time they’re in seventh grade at Sidwell school here, are already getting all kinds of advice and this and that and the other,” Obama said.

“The degree of preparation that many of our kids here are getting in advance of actually taking this [college admissions] test tilts the playing field. It’s not fair. And it’s gotten worse.”

The summit came as key education issues are pending in Congress. An overhaul of the No Child Left Behind law, which sets rules for federal funding for elementary and secondary schools, is years overdue. Lawmakers are pondering a rewrite of federal higher-education law, but it is unclear when that will come to a vote.

For Obama, gathering college leaders at the White House was an exercise of what he called the power of the telephone. His aides invited the educators to the summit on the condition that they take new measures to help students in need.

Among the measures announced Thursday:

●A $10 million gift from the John M. Belk Endowment to expand the College Advising Corps. Based in North Carolina, the corps recruits recent college graduates to serve as advisers in high schools. It has 375 advisers in Virginia and 14 other states. Plans call for the corps to have more than 500 advisers in the coming year.

●The College Board said it would work with colleges to enable disadvantaged students who take the SAT to receive fee waivers that let them apply to four colleges for free.

●The Posse Foundation announced that it is doubling, to 10, the number of schools it works with to provide college opportunities for underprivileged students focused on science, technology, engineering and math. New partners include Georgetown University and Davidson, Middlebury, Pomona and Smith colleges.

George Washington University said that it would host Saturday workshops in the District for middle-school students to get them energized about college, and that it would expand partnerships with local community colleges and take other steps to give students and families direct assistance with applications for admission and financial aid. Howard University and the University of Maryland system, among others, also announced initiatives to help students in need.

In his speech, Obama singled out the University of Virginia for an effort to recruit high-achieving high school students in economic need. The program will send students personalized messages about college costs, financial aid and net price, among other steps to help them apply.

U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan, in the audience, tweeted: “POTUS shout out to UVA commitment to reach low-income high school students directly. #Opportunityforall.”

Last year, U-Va. announced it would scale back a program called AccessUVA that provides scholarships to students from low- and middle-income families.

Sullivan said Thursday that the university stands out among public institutions for its level of assistance to students in need. “We’ve still got one of the best financial aid programs in America,” she said.

Zachary A. Goldfarb contributed to this report.