03/04/2013 03:07 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

College Education Cost: The Risks Ahead

As the federal government, encouraged by the media, looks more closely at college and university sticker prices, the American higher education community must be ready to cooperate where possible -- and defend itself when necessary.

The polls overwhelmingly demonstrate that Americans are concerned about the cost of college education. But most of them fail to draw a critical distinction between the sticker price advertised and the actual cost of attendance. This failure to do so confuses the important policy question of how American society will educate -- and increasingly reeducate -- its citizens to compete in a global economy.

The pace of technological change, heightened consumer anxiety made worse by the lingering deep recession, and the failure of higher education leadership to defend core values founded on the liberal arts tradition brings higher education closer to a tipping point in consumer confidence.

It would be a tragedy if some combination of political polling, dysfunctional government by anecdote -- a knee-jerk defense of higher education turf by its leadership -- and legitimate fears over rising sticker prices determined how we educate our citizens going forward.

Both sides should declare victory before they dig in their heels and prepare for a long, ugly and protracted war. Change is coming and it would be better if the lines of communication opened sufficiently to allow government and higher education to face it together. In other terms, what happens when the issues are more important than the outcomes determined by the narrowness of the questions raised by anecdote, polling and think tank white papers?

With technology overwhelming traditional pedagogy, is it really good policy to fight tactical skirmishes on secondary issues until both sides have exhausted their weapons? Is the coming debate on higher education likely reduced to the last person standing?

In many ways, the College Scorecard addresses some of the first issues that American society must address soon. It is certainly useful to publish an actual cost of attendance within the scorecard metrics.

As I noted last week, however, looking at financial metrics is an acceptable but wholly insufficient first step. Happily though this opening "out-of-the-box" exercise illustrates, in its strengths and weaknesses, what additional metrics may be on the horizon. It would be useful for those within the American higher education community to understand the full game plan -- and soon.

If the federal government expects the American higher education community to cooperate, it must be open, transparent and thoughtful in its strategy, while bullying less. Further, the Department of Education should invite broader participation far deeper into the higher education community to determine how best to solve policy problems.

The government provides key economic subsidies, tax incentives and regulatory relief, among other incentives, across American industry in areas ranging from food to energy. The notion that a free market economy would effectively impose price controls on one industry, but not another, makes little sense -- especially when the federal government has failed to demonstrate its own ability to create efficiencies and economies of scale recently to better social policy.

No side is blameless. American higher education leadership must regain its voice immediately. To do so, it should lay out a strategy with two initial starting points.

First, the leadership should seek a better understanding from the federal government about the nature of its partnership with the government. Is the first role of the national government to provide support for students seeking access to post-secondary education? Further, will cooperative partnership between American universities and the federal government in research be maintained? Additionally, are there other ways in which both parties can cooperate on a long-term policy agenda?

Second, higher education leaders must better educate the American public about the diversity within higher education by type of education, program, method of delivery and outcomes. Implicit in this education must be a foundation argument. Rather than argue -- albeit correctly -- that the liberal arts prepare students for life, leaders must demonstrate more pragmatically that the liberal arts are the foundation that teaches Americans to think, speak and write. When professional training is grafted onto this foundation, America produces an educated citizenry and a prepared and adaptable workforce. It cannot do so without first laying out a foundation upon which to graft the professional training.

The principles remain the same. Yet, language matters -- now more than ever.

The Department of Education raises legitimate concerns about sticker price. The American public needs to be better educated about what this means for them. Higher education leadership must be prepared to address consumer concerns. For the latter, it's not really a marketing and communications question. Technology has already begun to force basic efficiencies and economies of scale into the higher education system. These trends will continue and the pace will likely quicken.

Embedded within this concern is opportunity. Higher education historically has had a remarkable ability to reinvent itself. If the broader policy question is about the cost of attendance, the solution lies in the progressive, strategic and creative change within higher education in which sticker price masks the bigger opportunities that higher education must embrace.

This time it's not about the money despite discussion about cost. It's about where were headed as a nation and how we make certain our citizens get there.