WASHINGTON – The presidents of Bates and Bowdoin colleges were among more than 100 college leaders from around the country who gathered at the White House on Thursday to discuss ways to increase access to higher education, particularly among lower-income students.

Both Bates College President Clayton Spencer and Bowdoin College President Barry Mills said their institutions focus on helping students of all social and economic backgrounds to attend college.

“That is a big part of who we are,” said Spencer. “The way we live out that commitment is we actively recruit a diverse student body and we only offer need-based financial aid.”

Roughly 50 percent of the student body at Bates receives financial aid. The Lewiston college distributes roughly $30 million in financial aid per year, with the average aid package over $40,000. The cost of tuition, room, board and fees at Bates this year is $58,950.

Spencer said she walked away from Thursday’s “college access” event – which featured talks by both President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama – feeling reinforced about her college’s focus on connecting newer students with peers to help them academically and personally make the transition into college. Spencer said discussing the issue with others in higher education is helpful and she made connections with leaders of foundations and nonprofit education organizations that can help develop or fine-tune programs.

College leaders had to commit to an initiative to expand access to higher education in order to attend Thursday’s event, although many of those pledges were likely commitments to initiatives already under way at schools.

Mills said that Bowdoin committed to raise more money for its endowment to pay for financial aid to support lower-income students. Roughly half of the student body receives financial aid at Bowdoin, where tuition, fees, room and board cost just shy of $58,000 this year.

But Mills said that nearly 70 percent of students from Maine receive financial aid, a fact he said reflects the economic reality of the state but also the college’s outreach to local students from lower-income families. Between 11 and 12 percent of Bowdoin’s student body hails from Maine.

Over the past 10 to 15 years, the college has broadened that outreach beyond Maine.

One topic discussed Thursday that resonated with both Mills and Spencer was the need to demystify the financial aid process. Obama has called on colleges, banks and counselors to help college-bound students and their families better understand their choices and the impacts of their decisions about financing their education, especially when it comes to student loan debt.

Mills said that is an area where he believes his college and others can and should play a larger role.

“One of the things that we can all do better is work with local Maine students to provide that service, even if they are not coming to Bowdoin,” he said.

Thursday’s event was part of Obama’s plan to use his pen and his phone to pursue his administration’s policy goals through the powers of the executive branch rather than waiting for a bitterly divided Congress to send him legislation to sign.

“And I’ve got a phone that allows me to convene Americans from every walk of life – non-profits, businesses, the private sector, universities – to try to bring more and more Americans together around what I think is a unifying theme: making sure that this is a country where if you work hard, you can make it,” Obama said during a recent Cabinet meeting.