The Department of Education hosted the first ever Voices in Action: National Youth Summit on Saturday to discuss how to make U.S. college graduation levels the highest in the world by 2020.

The summit gave high school and middle school students from around the country the chance to engage in discussion and listen to leaders in U.S. education.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who gave the keynote address, said that the White House believes that improving post-secondary school graduation rates and increasing the percentage of Americans with degrees are vital to the country’s future economic success.

“[Today’s young Americans] are competing for jobs with people from India, China, South Korea, Finland,” Duncan said.  “The President believes the countries out-educating us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

Duncan and other government officials offered up solutions to potential obstacles facing this goal.

One concern revealed in surveys collected during the National Youth Listening Tour in 2010 was the affordability of higher education.

Low-income families who participated in this Education Department initiative expressed frustration with the steady rise of college tuition fees across the nation, according to a video summary of the results shown at the opening of the summit.

In the past decade, many universities, both public and private, have had to increase the price of tuition to deal with inflation and to increase the quality of their programs.

Georgetown’s tuition rate rose by 3 percent from 2010 to 2011 and will increase again by 2.9 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to a Feb. 11 press release. The total cost for two semesters of an undergraduate education, complete with room and board, will reach $53, 910.

Duncan said that students who cannot pay the tuition at traditional four-year universities do have other options. Students might pursue less expensive degrees at three-year programs, community colleges or trade schools.

“I can’t tell you how critically important it is that you make sure we are invested in education, because education is not an expense — it is an investment,” Duncan said.

Other speakers at the event said that to reach the president’s goal, college education and skills advancement must become popular among the nation’s youth.

Kalpen Modi, a well-known actor and the White House liaison to Young Americans, the Arts and Asian American and Pacific Islander Communities, said that today’s students have the power to improve the U.S.’s current educational ranking.

“With the Democrats and Republicans [in Congress and the government] going back and forth, it is easy to forget how young people can change things,” he said.

Modi and Kaya Henderson, interim chancellor of D.C. public schools, both told young people to be unafraid to express their ideas to government leaders and to enact change themselves.

“You know who the best teachers are. You know what curriculum is meeting your needs and getting you ready for the world of college and careers,” Henderson said to the summit. “Demand that from [the government and educators].”

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