President Obama told university presidents and nonprofit leaders assembled at the White House on Thursday that improving college access for low-income students could have a “transformative” impact on economic mobility in the United States.

“If we as a nation can expand opportunity and reach out to those young people and help them not just go to college but graduate from college or university, it could have a transformative effect,” Obama said. “There is this huge cohort of talent that we're not tapping.”

The event, attended by more than 100 college presidents, was held to announce millions of dollars in private commitments to programs designed to help low-income students prepare for and graduate from the best possible colleges.

Obama highlighted programs that would mentor children from high-poverty communities, provide waivers for test fees and improve grant aid to those who can't afford to pay for school.

“We want to restore the essential promise of opportunity and upward mobility that's at the heart of America, the notion that if you work hard, you can get ahead, you can improve your situation in life, you can make something of yourself,” Obama said.

The president was joined at the event by first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle LeVaughn Robinson ObamaSmithsonian moves Michelle Obama portrait to larger space over high demand Trump celebrates St. Patrick's day on Twitter Michelle Obama’s advice to girls: 'Do not be afraid to fail' MORE, who said in a rare policy speech that she was participating “because that story of opportunity through education is the story of my life.”

“We will win by tapping the full potential of all of our young people, so that we can grow our economy and move this country forward,” the first lady said.

The White House said that the commitments announced Thursday should reach more than 100,000 students and see tens of millions of dollars in new spending.

State University of New York chancellor Nancy Zimpher told reporters that White House adviser Gene Sperling had worked the phones to solicit the pledges, telling groups and universities that the “price of admission” for attending the event was a new commitment to help low-income students.

White House press secretary Jay Carney emphasized that the event was evidence of how the White House could act in lieu of congressional action — a point that Obama also made during his remarks. In recent weeks, the White House has stressed that the president would use a mixture of executive action and the bully pulpit to rally a “year of action” on his economic agenda.

“I'm also going to act on my own if Congress is deadlocked,” Obama said. “I've got a pen to take executive actions where Congress won't, and I've got a telephone to rally folks around the country on this mission. And today is a great example of how, without a whole bunch of new legislation, we can advance this agenda.”