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Duncan, Kerry hold student town hall on campus

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Emerson President Lee Pelton spoke to more than 130 students from Emerson and other Boston-area colleges about education issues Monday at a town-hall style meeting in Emerson’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre. During the hour-long discussion, students raised questions and exchanged ideas with the Secretary, the Senator, and Pelton on college affordability, job training, the role of technology in higher education, and the best ways to compete in the 21st-century global economy.

During the talk, Kerry emphasized that education must be seen as an investment in the future rather than merely a cost. He also discussed the necessity of a good higher education system to keep America competitive with the rest of the world. Other countries are far more competitive, he said, and focused on being strong in the global marketplace. They are working on improving education, he said, while America is still “moseying along and not springing into full gear.”

Kerry also called on students to pressure the government for more funding for education. He noted that student loan debt in America is now higher than credit card debt. He related the potential power of student activism to the revolution in Egypt last year. “Students have got to be as active as they were in Tahrir Square. You’ve got to start demanding of your politicians that they’re standing up and voting for the right thing and that they’re fighting for additional funding,” said Kerry.

When one student asked how America could reverse the inner-city education gap, Duncan recounted a personal story. His mother has run an after-school program in an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago ever since he was a child. He was able to see first-hand how disadvantaged children experienced education. The mentorship his mother offered those students was crucial, he said, in developing their potential and keeping them in school.

“It’s amazing how much potential we as a society are leaving on the sidelines [by not improving education and mentorship in underfunded schools]. If we commit to this issue as a society, you’re going to see an amazing amount of talent,” said Duncan.

Prior to the town hall with students, Pelton, Duncan, and Kerry held a roundtable discussion on the Emerson campus with presidents of 15 other Massachusetts colleges and universities, where they talked about the work being done to keep costs down and ways that they can provide more opportunities to their students. They discussed innovative higher education programs aimed at preparing students to thrive in today’s global economy and ways to keep them engaged, among other topics.

“This was a wonderful opportunity to convene an important conversation with Secretary Duncan, Senator Kerry, and several of my local college president peers,” said Pelton. “We discussed initiatives at our institutions that are helping to prepare students as they enter the workforce as well as several creative ideas to contain tuition cost. I am very pleased that this event also allowed students to speak directly to key government officials who approve legislation and develop policies that will impact their futures.”

For more information, read the Boston Globe’s coverage of Kerry and Duncan’s visit.

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