Augustana College is answering the call from President Barack Obama to help provide better access to higher education for low-income and disadvantaged students.

Augustana President Steve Bahls was one of more than 100 college and university presidents and leaders of nonprofit and other education groups to rally around a goal of widening opportunities for disadvantaged students during a higher education summit Thursday.

"We still have a long way to go to unlock the doors of higher education to more Americans and especially lower-income Americans," Obama said. "We're going to have to make sure they're ready to walk through those doors."

During the daylong summit, Obama and educational leaders discussed ways to increase college access for low-income students.

Bahls said Thursday that there is a "significant financial need" by students interested in attending Augustana, a private, four-year liberal arts college in Rock Island.

“We have been asking for about the last year how we can become accessible for more students,” Bahls said. “When (Obama) made the special call in November, that encouraged us to take the next step.”

In December, Augustana announced plans to launch the Close the Gap Award program that will provide a grant of $2,500 to $7,500 to eligible students starting in the 2014-15 school year.

Bahls said the program aims to attract students who may not have chosen Augustana for financial reasons.

The college is reaching out to its donors to help raise the $1 million needed over the next four years to meet the financial needs of eligible students. So far, the college has raised $800,000, which will help about 40 students for four years, and secured other donations for an additional 10 students.

Bahls said he expects to have 45 students for the program by the summer.

Augustana also invested more than $39 million in financial aid grants and scholarships last year and 96 percent of its enrolled students received some type of financial assistance, according to information released by the White House.

Augustana also offers a $500 Early Fliers Award to encouraging Pell and near-Pell-eligible students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in time to avoid early cut-offs in the state's Monetary Award Program, according to the White House.

Bahls said he would like to see Augustana find better ways to help students better navigate their way through the financial aid process.

The White House has increasingly been seeking ways to bypass Congress, an approach that can bring about results but that doesn't often have the breadth or the permanence of a law. Obama said his education initiatives are part of an effort to "make sure there are new ladders of opportunity to the middle class."

"I'm working with Congress where I can to accomplish this," he said. "But I'm also going to take action on my own if Congress is deadlocked."

Eager to put the White House's stature behind the education push, Obama was joined Thursday by first lady Michelle Obama, who urged schools to reach out actively to low-income high-school students to attract them to their campuses and to provide them with help once they decide to pursue higher education.