09/28/2012 05:43 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Need a Big Idea, Mr. President? Here Are Two

Last Sunday on 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft asked Barack Obama this question: "Many times in our history there have been big ideas like going to the moon and the Marshall Plan ... What would you like to see happen in your [next] four years?" The president responded with a disjointed non sequitur by answering that "there's no bigger purpose right now than making sure that if people work hard in this country, they can get ahead." And when 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley asked him the same question Mitt Romney was even more vacuous, answering that his big idea is that what America needs is "freedom" (whatever that means).

The candidates' dueling interviews on 60 Minutes were a depressing performance that validated the criticism of New York Times columnist David Brooks and other members of the pundit class who have complained that neither candidate has been willing to risk trying to spark the nation's imagination by suggesting big ideas whose implementation can address the underlying causes of the nation's economic problems and, for so many Americans, their loss of confidence that, if they work hard, they and their children really can get ahead.

So stepping into the vacuum the candidates' pusillanimity has created I would like to suggest that next week during the first presidential debate the president offer the nation two very big ideas. The first is a plan to de-leverage (by outright forgiveness and allowing the indebtedness to be discharged in bankruptcy) the $1 trillion in student loan debt that is weighing down the economic recovery. The second is a plan which will ensure that, from here on out, every high school graduate can attend tuition-free any publicly funded college or graduate school that he or she is smart enough and has worked hard enough to get into. And if a tax increase, including a tax increase for "middle class" Americans as well as for the rich, is the only way those objectives can be achieved, so be it. Because that collective sacrifice is what the obligations of citizenship and the future of the nation require.

In 1969 when I was 22 years old and had a net worth of less than $200 I decided to apply for admission to Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, the University of California's oldest law school. When I did the question of whether I could afford to attend law school never crossed my mind because I knew that, for all residents of California, since 1868 the University of California had been free. Because there was no tuition I could work my way through, first renting cars from a kiosk in a downtown parking lot and then working as a law clerk for the legal services program in San Francisco. When I graduated in 1972 I had less than $3,000 in student loan debt, which I paid off in less than two years working as a VISTA attorney for a legal services program in Alaska from a bush office that served an impoverished Yup'ik Eskimo client community.

That crossed my mind recently when I received a fund-raising email from Hastings in which the dean reported that in-state tuition at Hastings is now $39,085 a year.

Adjusted for inflation, my legal education probably cost more than $39,085 a year. But rather than being paid by me, that cost was paid by all California residents, principally through California's income and corporate taxes; the theory being that using public money to make a capital investment in me was a social good from which all Californians would benefit just as they benefit when public money is used to make a capital investment in a road or bridge.

In California, that way of thinking about the public benefit of public post-secondary education first began to change in 1967 when Ronald Reagan became governor. Outraged by the Free Speech Movement that had begun on the Berkeley campus in 1964, when he assumed office Reagan persuaded the regents to fire University of California President Clark Kerr. He then urged the legislature to cut the university's budget by 25 percent and make up the difference by requiring students to pay tuition; a cost shifting that Reagan hoped would rid the university of "undesirables" who, as Max Rafferty, California's right-of-reactionary Superintendent of Public Instruction famously railed, had been enjoying themselves during Clark Kerr's tenure as president by majoring in "sex, drugs, and treason."

Luckily for me, by the time Ronald Reagan got his way and the University of California began requiring students to pay tuition that, once it was imposed, has never stopped increasing, I had graduated from a law school I never would have considered attending if to do so I would have had to start off in life $117,255 in debt. And had I been willing to take on that much debt I certainly would not have started my legal career as a VISTA attorney in bush Alaska.

Over the years that have morphed into decades Ronald Reagan's way of looking at the situation gained traction, not only in California but throughout the nation. As recently as 1990 the California Legislature provided Hastings with 80 percent of the money it needed to operate. Today the legislature provides less than 14 percent. And according to the National Science Board, over the past ten years the nation's major public research universities have lost 20 percent of the funding that had been provided by the legislatures of the states in which they are located. And in Colorado and Rhode Island the decrease has been almost 50 percent.

But that is not the worst of it. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2010 former students or their parents in two out of every 10 of the nation's households had student loan debt, in households headed by someone 35-years-old or younger the number was four out of every ten households, the average household owed $26,682, and one out of every 10 households owed more than $61,894.

The stories of the life-altering damage that that cost-shifting is inflicting are multitudinous and protean: the UC Berkeley graduate who will pay a bank $850 a month for the next twenty years, the twenty-something son of an acquaintance of mine who with his twenty-something wife after both graduated from graduate school together owe $250,000, the college graduate who 20 years ago borrowed $44,000, tried as best he could to pay it back, but as the interest piled up today owes $130,000. Hundreds of thousands of former students have similar stories.

Assuming a 5 percent interest rate, each year just the interest payments required to service the $1 trillion student loan debt prevents former students (and their parents) who make those payments from spending $50 billion that they should be spending to purchase homes, automobiles, and other goods and services on whose purchase our consumer-driven economy depends. But even more importantly, there is a moral issue.

As James Morrill, the president of the University of Minnesota, explained more than 50 years ago, the idea that the cost of supporting public colleges and universities should be borne by the students who attend them, rather than by all tax-paying residents of the states in which the institutions are located, is an incomprehensible repudiation of the whole philosophy of a successful democracy premised on an educated citizenry. It negates the whole concept of wide-spread educational opportunity made possible by the state university idea. It conceives college training as a personal investment for profit instead of a social investment. No realistic and unrealizable counter-proposal for some vast new resource for scholarship aid and loans can compensate for a betrayal of the "American Dream" of equal opportunity to which our colleges and universities, both public and private, have been generously and far-sightedly committed.

I have no expectation that Mitt Romney understands James Morrill's sagacity any more than Ronald Reagan did. Given his background, Barack Obama should understand. But while in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention he perorated that "education was the gateway to opportunity for me" and that "no family should have to set aside a college acceptance letter because they don't have the money," the president has been oddly unreflective about how the opportunity to attend schools that he and his mother and grandparents could not afford and the opportunity to begin his life as an adult without his life choices having been constricted by the amount of student loan debt that is constricting the life choices of so many of today's college and graduate school graduates made the transformative life that made him President possible.

Barack Obama is president of the United States because in 1971 when he was in the fifth grade Barry Obama was admitted to Punahou Academy, the most prestigious private prep school in Hawaii. In Dreams From My Father, his meditative autobiography, the President credits his mother's persistence and the influence of a member of the Punahou board of trustees for whom his grandmother worked for his admission. He makes no mention of the fact that, as Obama biographer David Maraniss relates in Barack Obama: The Story, Barry Obama could not have attended Punahou, at which in 1971 tuition was more than $1,000, if the school had not started "a need-based scholarship program that had begun targeting students of his potential and diverse background."

In Dreams From My Father Barack Obama then relates that in 1979 when Barry Obama graduated from Punahou he nonchalantly decided to attend Occidental College, a private rich kids college in southern California, "mainly because I'd met a girl from Brentwood [the wealthy enclave next door to Beverly Hills] while she was vacationing in Hawaii with her family." If the girl from Brentwood really was a factor, according to David Maraniss, another was the fact, which Dreams From My Father does not mention, that Occidental gave Barry Obama a scholarship.

In 1983 when he graduated from Columbia University to which he had transferred from Occidental, Barry (now Barack) Obama decided to become a community organizer. But as he tells the story in Dreams From My Father, when no civil rights organization would hire him, "I decided to find more conventional work for a year, to pay off my student loans and maybe even save a little bit."

So after having attended two expensive private colleges for four years, whatever the amount of Barack Obama's student loan debt was, if he could pay it off through "conventional work" in less than a year, it likely was no more than my own.

After working as a community organizer and then enrolling in the Harvard Law School, in 1989 Barack Obama married Michelle Robinson who had attended Princeton and the Harvard Law School even though her family's working class financial status was as modest as Barry Obama's mother's and grandparents' had been. In an obviously calibrated attempt to connect candidate Obama with today's generation of college and graduate school graduates, in her speech at the Democratic convention Michelle Obama explained that "when my brother and I finally made it to college, nearly all of our tuition came from student loans and grants" and that When it comes to giving our kids the education they deserve, Barack knows that like me and like so many of you, he never could've attended college without financial aid. And believe it or not, when we were first married, our combined monthly student loan bills were actually higher than our mortgage. We were so young, so in love, and so in debt.

Last April Barack Obama told students at the University of North Carolina the same thing. "Michelle and I, we've been in your shoes," the president vouched, because "We only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago." "When we graduated from college and law school we had a mountain of debt. When we married, we got poor together. We added up our assets and there were no assets. And we added up our liabilities and there were a lot of liabilities -- basically in the form of student loans."

While in 1989 the student loan debt that Barack and Michelle Obama did not -- or chose not to? -- pay off completely until 2004 may have seemed to them like a "mountain of debt," whether by today's standards it was cannot be known without knowing how much the debt was. But however much it was it was not enough to prevent the couple from qualifying for a mortgage or to dissuade a wannabe politician who was making payments on student loans (that he had taken out during law school?) from running for the State Senate in 1996 or in 1999 for Congress.

To his credit, last June President Obama spent a modest amount of political capital to persuade Congress to enact legislation that prevented the interest rate for federal direct student loans from doubling. But making it easier for students to go into debt that, whatever the interest rate, it may take too many of them a working lifetime to repay in order to obtain a college or graduate school education that over that same working lifetime will benefit us all is not the kind of big idea to which Steve Croft alluded in the question he posed to the president on 60 Minutes. Mobilizing the nation to return to the values that for more than a century the University of California exemplified is.