Education Secretary Arne Duncan argues that higher education is falling short for millions of students, failing to give them “what they need and deserve”  — quality degrees at a reasonable cost.

In prepared remarks for an event Monday at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Duncan argued that “debt-free degrees” are “only part of the solution” for reform of colleges and universities. The other part, he said, is outcomes.

Sometimes, he said, politicians focus too much on what college costs and not enough on what it delivers.

The event was scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. Duncan planned to appear with UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III and with F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University; LaGuardia Community College President Gail Mellow; Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System and incoming president of Northern Virginia Community College; Morgan State University President David Wilson; and State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.

Alexander planned to touch on the same themes.

“We need to increase access and success, persistence and retention, and make sure our graduates walk away with little-to-no debt, and walk into fulfilling careers,” the LSU president said in prepared remarks. “To reach this goal, we need to take a three-pronged approach that prioritizes outcomes, incentivizes states to maintain or increase their support of public universities, and ensures accountability through the regulatory process. … Every university represented in this room is doing something right. That’s why we’re here. But looking at the national reality — the number of students defaulting, the number of students who aren’t completing, and the number of students who never even start — makes it painfully clear that it’s time to prioritize the big picture. It’s time to make real change.”

Here are excerpts from Duncan’s speech:

“America’s students know what they want out of college. They want an education that will set them on a path to success. They want control of their future, without decades of overwhelming debt. They want a college degree that will help them thrive independently, support a family, shape the world and contribute to their communities.

“For many students, that’s not just a dream. For them, our nation’s world-class colleges and universities and strong credential programs offer a clear path to economic security and success. For them, college offers a pivotal moment in their lives that defined their future in profoundly positive ways.

“But unfortunately, for millions of other students, our higher education system just isn’t delivering what they need, and deserve. As a nation, we can change that – and we must.”

[…]

“There is a path to a higher education system that serves many more students much better. And continuing to make college more accessible and affordable – including more tuition-free and debt-free degrees – is part of that. But it’s only part.

“If we confine the discussion to cost and debt, we will have failed. Because we will have only found better ways to pay for a system that fails far too many of our students.

“Make no mistake: Our administration will not let up in our efforts to help more students pay for college, to break the upward cycle of cost, and to crack down on bad actors that take advantage of students. And we will continue to strengthen our enforcement efforts.

“But as a nation, we must go further. We must reset the incentives that underpin the system so the focus is on the outcome that matters: completing a quality degree at a reasonable cost. And we must have the courage to embrace innovations that meet the needs of a student body that has changed enormously in recent decades.”

[…]

“A spiral of cost and debt today threatens to take college, America’s engine of social mobility, and kick it into reverse gear …”

“The need is urgent to rein in the cost of college, to create more tuition-free and zero-debt pathways, and to reverse the shocking slide in state support for higher education…”

“In the face of these challenges, I’m proud to say that our administration has taken unprecedented action.”

[…]

“A lot of my friends here in Washington have been talking about the need for debt-free degrees. And they’re right. Students must have many more pathways to tuition- and debt-free degrees… But cost and debt are just one part of this fight.

“Student debt is a burden for too many students, but most ultimately repay their loans, and for those who get their degree, college proves an excellent investment. By some estimates, a bachelor’s degree increases lifetime earnings on average by about one million dollars.

“The degree students truly can’t afford is the one they don’t complete, or that employers don’t value.”

[…]

“We must shift incentives at every level to focus on student success, not just access. When students win, everyone wins. But when they lose, every part of the system should share responsibility.

“Today, only students, families and taxpayers lose when students don’t succeed– that makes no sense. Institutions must be held accountable when they get paid by students and taxpayers but fail to deliver a quality education. So should states and accreditors who are responsible to oversee them under the law.

“By the same token, schools should be rewarded for doing the right thing – like taking on students who are struggling and helping them succeed.”

[…]

“The challenge before us is enormous. But I take heart from the genius of visionaries like those gathered in this room. I believe that with your leadership, and with collective courage and a commitment, our nation will advance the work of perfecting the promise of higher education.

“This is not just an economic imperative, but a moral necessity. Ensuring the opportunity of college success for all students who are willing to work hard is a core tenet of the American covenant.

“As President Obama told the NAACP earlier this month, ‘Justice is not only the absence of oppression, it is the presence of opportunity.’

“The decisions we face here will define our generation. In the choices we make, we will decide what kind of country we are, and who gets to share in the nation’s success.”