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Duncan, Kerry call for action on tuition

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Education Secretary Arne Duncan (left); M. Lee Pelton (center), president of Emerson College; and Senator John F. Kerry appeared yesterday at a town hall meeting at Emerson College.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Senator John F. Kerry joined 13 college presidents and some 100 students from across the area for a wide-ranging discussion yesterday that emphasized the need to keep higher education affordable for the middle class.

In an interview after the meetings, held at Emerson College, Kerry said one key point is to persuade government officials and voters that higher education still deserves a large share of state and federal funding.

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“This is not spending; this is an investment,’’ he said. “Every student that graduates represents X amount increase to your economy and X amount to your tax base. It pays for itself many times over.’’

Yet institutions of higher education must do their part to keep tuition in check and provide students with skills that will enable them to find jobs, he said.

“Obviously, affordability is a huge issue,’’ Kerry said during the meetings. “The bottom line is, we have to adjust the model.’’

The secretary and senator first met privately with the college presidents.

“Both of them were there in listening mode, which I thought was extremely productive,’’ said Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University and incoming chair of the board of directors of the American Council on Education.

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University presidents nationwide have raised concerns about President Obama’s proposal to make some federal financial aid contingent on schools’ willingness to keep tuition in check. That topic came up in the private meeting, said Lee Pelton, president of Emerson.

“I think they understand the issues we face,’’ Pelton said, referring to Kerry and Duncan. “We all have the same objectives, which are to make sure that our higher education system is strong and robust and meets the needs of students and industries and society.’’

Instead, much of the conversation focused on a major factor driving tuition up at public institutions, the fact that many states have stripped them of their historical funding base.

“We are seeing a weakening of the public higher education system nationwide,’’ Aoun said. “There are enormous cuts year after year. So we have the privatization of the system, where they are forced to raise tuition in order to compensate.’’

Today, UMass receives $30 million less in state funding than it did a decade ago, UMass officials say.

The group also discussed the possibility of a loan forgiveness plan for students who choose majors and careers in mathematics and scientific fields. And it considered some troubling comparisons between the American higher education system and its counterparts in other countries, a point that clearly made an impression on Kerry, who brought up the topic in the student town hall that followed the private meeting.

“In China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Korea, and other countries, they’re largely focused on competing and winning,’’ he said during the town hall meeting. “And we’re kind of still moseying along.’’

Students at the meeting also brought up a topic that took the spotlight two weeks ago in Governor Deval Patrick’s State of the State address and again during Obama’s State of the Union speech: the important role of community colleges in creating a skilled workforce.

Community colleges are “an unrecognized, unpolished gem along the education continuum,’’ Duncan said in response, pointing out that the Department of Labor has funded several new initiatives at the schools. “They have an amazingly important role to play. We’re trying to increase their capacity. . . . We want to continue to invest.’’

Duncan also met with Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Boston school leaders at the John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Jamaica Plain to learn more about a program that offers free classes on practical and academic skills to students’ parents. Duncan also joined state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester at a workshop at Boston University.

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the position that Joseph Aoun will have at the American Council on Education.

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