WASHINGTON –Educators met Wednesday to discuss how U.S. private colleges and universities can help meet President Barack Obama’s goal of once again becoming the world’s leader in the number of college graduates by 2020.

Moderator Sarah Flanagan and Deputy Undersecretary of Education James Kvaal contemplate the problems of educators (Photo By Allyson Byers: Medill News Service)

“We need far more college graduates than we have to hold our place in the economic world,” said John Bassett, chair of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

However, Bassett warns educators that they should not place emphasis only on the number of graduates.

“It’s not just the number of degrees, but quality of degrees,” he said. “I spoke with someone who said this initiative could be the worst thing if it comes to just counting diplomas.”

As part of the association’s annual meeting, a panel discussed the progress private colleges have made thus far “in expanding access to college and ensuring degree completion,” the goal of the group’s “Building Blocks to 2020” initiative.

“We know there is a lot of great [programs] going on, but we don’t know the specifics, so we created a survey in 2009,” said Wendy Weiler, a research and policy analyst for the NAICU. “We continue to collect new programs on our site.”

Weiler urged educators to look at programs in place at colleges similar to their own, but she stressed that merely copying a program won’t always lead to success.

“Diversity exists in higher education and it’s what makes our education system so strong.” says Weiler. “One of the big new initiatives is first year initiative programs. Everyone has one. They have the same basic fundamental goal, but they do it in different ways based on their mission and who the students are.”

Each panelist applauded the success of the private education sector so far, such as small colleges that focus on increasing enrollment and completion rates of underprivileged students.

“We do have a number of colleges that are committed to serving the underprivileged population. They don’t have the completion rates like Williams, [which has a graduation rate of approximately 92%] and Amherst College, but they are taking chances,” said Bassett, chair of the NAICU board of directors,

Weiler encourages private colleges that are seeing success to continue improving.

“Maybe [your] institution is lucky enough to have a completion rate of 75%, but what about that other 25%?” said Weiler.

According to James Kvaal, Department of Education’s deputy under secretary, the United States is in ninth place for the number of young adults (18-24) with college graduates. America must raise its college completion levels from 40 percent to 60 percent to be the global leader.

NAICU hopes to ultimately share successful programs with the public sector and increase collaboration between private and public universities.

“I believe we will reach [this] goal even if I’m not completely sure when we will get there,” said Bassett.