U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan / File
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan / File (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a gathering of college and university leaders Monday that his vision for America's higher-education system includes making college more affordable, financial aid more accessible and loan repayment easier.

At a panel discussion hosted at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Duncan said he wants to see higher graduation rates, especially for people of color, as well as an increase in state funding for higher education.


He challenged higher-education leaders to focus on student success and promote innovation and transparency.

"All of us ... need to do a much better job of rewarding good actors and challenging those that aren't making a difference," Duncan said after the session. "This is about shared responsibility and mutual accountability.

"I think every state should be working to have the highest graduation rates in the nation, and as a nation we have to try and lead the world," Duncan said.

Dorie Turner Nolt, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said Monday's event was designed to bring together policy experts, leaders from local institutions, elected officials and others involved in higher education.

Panel speakers from Maryland and elsewhere shared ideas about issues facing higher education, including the causes and effects of increasing costs and the value of student body diversity.

Morgan State President David Wilson shared his own story, telling the audience his father was an illiterate sharecropper who once told him, "College is for white people" — his way of saying he didn't know how the family could afford it, Wilson said.

He said higher education must ensure that "cost is not going to be a major inhibitor."

But Duncan said part of the answer to providing more affordable college must come from the states. "State disinvestment" in college funding is a problem because it leads to tuition increases.

"States must stop cutting resources for higher education and must stop assuming that the federal government will cover states that slash spending," he said. "The most expensive degree is the one you never complete."

Last year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank, said that since the start of the recession, states had cut higher-education funding by 23 percent per student.

According to data analysis released Monday by the Department of Education, Maryland's graduation rate for four-year institutions is 65 percent — above the 55 percent national average.

Panel member Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College in North Carolina, said increased financial support for higher education helps to further diversity, which in turn enhances the quality of education for all students because various viewpoints are presented and shared.

"The knowledge we produce is only as good as the questions we ask, and when we have a homogenous group of people asking the questions.... the narratives about our own culture and past are distorted," she said.