THE BLOG

Why the Location of Tonight's Debate Matters

10/16/2012 03:42 pm ET | Updated Dec 16, 2012

How appropriate that the two Presidential candidates vying for our vote this November met this week on the campus of a four-year college, as it afforded them an opportunity to not only present their own credentials to lead, but to listen to what students had to say about a political process that has become polarized, fractured and dysfunctional.

These young people have as much riding on this election as anyone else, since its outcome will define issues ranging from the management of crushing college debt to whether there will be career opportunities after graduation. Many of these issues have become captives of Capitol Hill politics that have evolved from traditional horse trading and compromise to an ideological firestorm on even the simplest of public policy questions. The result is that many key issues defining the nation's landscape for college students emerging with a diploma are now being held hostage by fierce partisan trench warfare.

Students at Hofstra University in New York, the venue for this most recent presidential debate, decided to become equal participants in this latest political event, even if they couldn't get within a half mile of the auditorium. In the weeks leading into the debate, in cooperation with the Kettering Foundation, they created a series of debates among themselves that were carefully constructed as "civil engagements." Their stated goal was not to choose a position and then defend it but to depend on reliable information to transform personal ideas into shared public opinions and then find common ground with those participating in this process. Or in other words, politics as it is supposed to be for the purpose of advancing our democracy.

Students at Dean College, where I am President, are among a record 21.6 million individuals enrolled in colleges across the United States this fall. They are part of a potent constituency in what has become a genuine race for the Presidency. Both candidates need to provide them with at least a credible roadmap for career success as Dean Students, and their peers, desire a country that provides equal opportunity to succeed thanks to education, professional competency and personal ethics.

In addition, there needs to be a clear, unambiguous policy statement from both candidates regarding college debt and how the issue can be met without bankrupting families, students, the nation's Treasury or academic institutions. Those who demonize the rising cost of higher education while ignoring that employee health care, insurance premiums, energy costs, information technology and many other factors all contribute to rising tuition, will run the risk of alienating those who need to borrow in order to get to their future. Further, there needs to be a recognition that student support services, including mental health counseling, support for students with disabilities and programs designed to boost student retention and graduation rates for at-risk populations, also play a major role in defining costs and budgets.

By hosting this last debate on a college campus, the campaigners were dramatically reminded that the nation's future is currently attending class. More importantly, those 21.6 million college educated students now enrolled will be watching closely to see whether their issues are being heard and heeded by candidates who would ignore this thoughtful constituency at their own political peril.