One of the most-discussed campaign issues is higher education and its soaring cost. The possibilities for campaign rhetoric are numerous; one can discuss the resulting squeeze on middle-class families and their budgets, the inability for institutions to provide an innovative education, or even the skyrocketing interest rates on student loans and sound fairly competent. But unfortunately, developing talking points for any/all of these problems is all the candidates will do.

Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (and former president of the Teachers College, Columbia University), has suggested that, given the recent developments with the economy, the most influential policymakers and decision-makers should attend a higher education summit that picks apart these problems and actually solves them in the form of a contract.

President Obama could convene a summit, bringing together Washington, the states, and colleges and universities to triage the higher education goals he championed during the campaign — and to focus particularly on access and affordability, which are of greatest concern to the largest numbers of ordinary Americans.

Attendees for the summit should represent the full breadth of higher education — two-year and four-year and doctoral institutions, state-supported and independent — as well as the executive and legislative branches of the federal government and the key state education leaders, including governors and state higher education officers. That said, this has to be a select, influential group with the power to effect real change — no more than five per side.

These leaders should examine the real resources available to higher education, not as fat juicy pork but as basic sustenance for the key issues: access and affordability, research, economic development, and global competitiveness. The summit should be structured in three parts: first, a one-day gathering to identify key issues and priorities; second, a one-month period for a staff working group to develop and provide options; and third, a final one- or two-day meeting to reach conclusions.

The outcome of this gathering must go beyond rhetoric. The three sectors must agree to a practical, achievable contract that outlines specific roles for each sector. And all this should happen in the first 100 days of the Obama administration, before revenues are otherwise committed.

I like Levine’s proposal, mainly due to the contract at the end. Levine sets up the excerpt I provided above with a detailed explanation of the depressing education policy-making cycle that usually happens in politics. Long story short: the buck gets pushed from the federal government to the state government, from the state government to institutions, and then the institutions to students. The common good, the country, and all of the stakeholders lose.

The contract allows each constituency to take ownership of the provisions and encourages the quick passage of policy and allocation of revenues that we need in order to take serious steps toward solving the gargantuan problem with higher education in our country.

Yes, these big issues are tough to solve, and perhaps there could be a heated conversation or two (or plenty more than that) during these meetings, but this is a much better formula for success than playing the blame game. Kudos to Levine for putting forth an idea that seems to mesh with Obama’s philosophy. Let’s see if President-elect Obama and Secretary of Education-designate Arne Duncan are paying attention.

Related reading:

Higher Education Asks for Help in New Economic Stimulus

Study Abroad Held Hostage:  A Lesson on the Political Disenchantment of Millennials

Akron, OH Plan to Fight Brain Drain

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