Northeastern hosts U.S. under secretary of education

Martha Kanter, under secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said on Tuesday evening at Northeastern University that investing in higher education is critical to America’s future success.

“We want the best educated, most competitive workforce,” she told 60 people who gathered in the Amilcar Cabral Memorial Student Center for a town-hall-style meeting on student financial aid. “We want you to earn more and pay more taxes because that’s how we propel the economy.”

Prior to the meeting, Kanter met privately with Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun and more than 20 selected higher-education leaders, including other college and university presidents. The federal Department of Education had asked Northeastern to host the meeting.

Kanter opened the closed-door discussion by outlining President Obama’s blueprint for keeping college affordable, which he unveiled in his State of the Union address in January. The administration’s proposal includes a plan to increase federal financial aid by maintaining funding for Pell Grants and boosting funding for the Perkins Loan Program and work-study programs from $2.7 billion to $10 billion annually.

Aoun, who is currently serving a one-year term as board chair of the American Council on Education, praised the substantive nature of the private meeting. “It was an open discussion ranging from financial aid to the uniqueness of the American higher-education model,” he said in his opening remarks at the public forum. “It is not the case that we can look at higher education as a homogenous system,” he added, noting Kanter’s “commitment to the value of diversity in education at all levels.”

Northeastern continues to expand its student financial-aid program. In the 2010-2011 academic year, for example, Northeastern provided $160 million in institutional scholarships and grants and administered more than $210 million in federal financial aid, including loans and grants, to its students.

In June 2011, Aoun convened a group of university presidents and officials from the U.S. Department of Education, including Kanter, to discuss the administration’s proposal to modernize and expand the Perkins program. Without congressional action, the program will expire in 2014.

On Thursday, Kanter briefed the town hall audience on Obama’s long-range plan for investing in higher-education reform. The goal, she said, is to produce a total of 10 million more college graduates by 2020.

“Students with degrees are two times more likely to be employed,” she said, adding that only 41 percent of people between 25 and 34 years old held a college degree in 2009, a percentage that places the United States behind 13 other countries. “A generation ago,” she said, “we were number one.”

Kanter said Obama’s college affordability plan includes a proposal to double the number of federally funded work-study positions over the next five years, underscoring the importance of undergraduate work experience.

“Too many students are not career ready” upon graduation, Kanter said. “We should prepare students for college, careers and citizenship.”

She praised Northeastern’s co-op program for preparing students for the working world, noting the university’s “leadership in all kinds of ways that the federal government can emulate.”

After her lecture, Kanter fielded questions posed by audience members.

Tricia Williamson, the associate director of admissions recruitment, asked for Kanter’s position on whether student loans should be apportioned based on field of study.

“We need poets as much as we need scientists,” Kanter responded. “We need to prepare the scientific workforce,” she later added. “That’s absolutely critical.”