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.”