When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan— the first member of a presidential cabinet to take one of Emerson’s five stages —took the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre stage Monday, he was met with a series of questions about education at community colleges, quality K-12 education, and college affordability.
He joined Emerson College President M. Lee Pelton and U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for a question-and-answer session with more than 100 college students.
Much of the discussion at the meeting surrounded what Kerry feels is the United States quickly falling from its status as the leading academic nation. He said it is largely because of our weakening education system.
“Other countries are focusing on the marketplace and winning,” said Kerry. “We’ve got to do a better job in K through 12. Too many people are going into college and immediately going into remedial math and remedial writing. We’ve got to focus people on what the marketplace is going to be demanding.”
Six students were able to pose questions during the 40 minute session as the rest of the room listened attentively. Kerry placed a large emphasis on the Massachusetts transfer plan for high performing community college students. According to the plan, students who graduate from community college with a 2.5 grade point average are automatically accepted to state universities, and students who graduate with a 3.0 average have tuition waived.
Duncan said many members of the work-force today must return to community college to gain practical skills in addition to their four year university degree.
“I think community colleges are an unpolished gem,” said Duncan. “They have an important role to play.”
Currently, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is working to bolster the curriculum in the state’s 15 community colleges. He plans to do this by shifting the goal of these schools —taking the focus from providing transfer opportunities and moving it to creating relationships with businesses so students can find jobs after the two years, according to The Boston Globe.
The three speakers agreed affordability of higher learning is another key issue in the nation’s education system. Kerry said college debt is currently the largest national deficit totalling $1 trillion.
Secretary Duncan said to combat this growing number, he believes we need to make the college tuition process far more understandable, so students and families know exact statistics before investing large sums of money in education.
“We are trying to think through how to have a thoughtful and balanced score card so that young people and their families can figure out what the real cost is of four years, what are graduation rates, what are my chances of getting a good paying job when I graduate,” said Duncan during a press conference following the Q&A. “I think folks today are smart and savvy; we have the best system of education in the world by far, we just need to make better choices.”
President Pelton spoke of affordability from an Emerson standpoint, explaining how administrators are working to add money to Emerson’s financial aid budget making one in five students now eligible for aid.
“It is the case in the Commonwealth that four year independent colleges and universities have increased their financial aid by 67 percent over the last four years,” said Pelton in an interview with the Beacon after the event. “So it represents a tremendous investment in our students and in our future of the nation.”
During the forum, Kerry and Duncan stressed how essential a solid K-12 education can be to students.
Kerry said a major problem with classrooms today is a divide in understanding among students during lessons.
“We need to deal with failing kids,” said Kerry. “It doesn’t do a teacher any good to be in a classroom with 30 students when half of the class goes home and does their homework and the other half doesn’t get it.”
Kerry said the solution to this problem is a strong mentoring program and more funding to K-12 education.
“Lack of funding to early childhood education, K through 12 education in America, is contributing to the wealth division, the opportunity division, and even the living division in our country,” he said. “There is no question the great equalizer in the United States of America has always been the opportunity of education and the difference that education makes in peoples lives.”
Prior to the conference, Pelton, Duncan, and Kerry met with other local college presidents to discuss topics like cost containment, federal government incentives, and reducing costs through technology, said Pelton.
“I’m very pleased that Emerson hosted this important event,” said Pelton. “It doesn’t happen very often that a college or university has an opportunity to bring together national leaders in a single setting to meet, in this instance, with college presidents and then also to meet and have open candid frank conversations with students.”
Fernanda Vazquez, a senior performing arts major, attended the student question and answer session, but was disappointed with the structure of the event.
“I think it was disorganized. I would’ve made time for more questions and organized for student leaders to speak with them,” said Vazquez. “But loans and debt, the most important topics, were definitely addressed.”
Pelton said he was pleased with the outcome of this event and hopes to host similar discussions in the future.
“We believe that Emerson has a significant role to play in the larger society, and this is part of our efforts to remain civically engaged in important national issues.” he said. “We’re going to be doing more of this in the future.”