10/22/2012 04:39 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

Where's Waldo: Higher Education and the Next "Big Idea"

President Obama and Governor Romney - likely by design - have responded as candidates in a close election rather than leaders laying out a comprehensive national education vision. The facts are that candidates who watch the polls are sometimes elected to office. But leaders who inspire voter confidence with a good plan that solves problems are more often the choice. It would be a break out moment for one of the candidates to be courageous in this election, especially as we move toward the last presidential debate. We all admire politicians who stand by their beliefs whether we agree with them or not.

What's needed now, however, is a president who understands the power and potential of American higher education. Our next president, tied to the last years of the great recession, has neither the time nor luxury to let ideology determine outcome and retool older agendas based on political compromises. Rather he must quickly engage higher education leadership - and the American public -- with a statement of clear national guidelines for higher education strategy to find the next "big idea."

The great difference on education policy will be in the role of the private sector in both K-12 and higher education. Democrats, in general, are highly skeptical if not hostile to private enterprise engaging in what has traditionally been public territory. And, no doubt, there have been abuses by for-profit colleges. On the other hand, Republicans reflexively prefer the private sector as more agile and innovative. There will be ideological battles on this issue no matter who wins.
Both presidential candidates stress the need to move forward, however they define it. The questions are how, where, and at what speed given the mess that the new president will inherit from the still smoldering wreckage of the great recession. Let's begin by thinking about some guidelines:

* Applaud the diversity of American higher education.
* Understand that market and consumer forces shape consumer choice, end the posturing on price controls, and keep tuition costs down.
* Establish a baseline for future federal financial involvement beginning with support for the Pell Grant and realistically priced student loans.
* Use the need for accountability to reinforce published objective metrics on graduation rates, loan default, and post graduate employment, accounting for the type and diversity of institutions in America.
* Link college outcomes to the needs of the workforce by bringing higher education and industry together much more intentionally with an eye to the unemployment statistics and unmet workforce needs.
* Reframe the educational infrastructure as vital to the nation's economic and military defense, protect the tax-exempt status of colleges, and encourage philanthropy through federal tax policy.

In short, we need less of a political compromise tracked through polling and reinforced by ideology and more of a practical game plan. To begin, we must first understand the why to support the how. If election rhetoric has taught us anything, it is that our new president must outline a simple, clear and compelling case for the role that education will play in our future.

Higher education leaders must appreciate that change is coming and be prepared to make a rational, informed case for the best of what they do. They must lead the charge on how best to keep costs down given the intersection of the economy, technology, and shifting demographics. Either higher education leaders step forward or run the risk of being stepped over. All Americans need to appreciate how education helps us compete in global markets, contributes to the national defense, and most important, improves our quality of life.

With guiding principles in place, government and higher education can think together about the next "big idea." These new ideas can look at ways to combine savings, economies of scale, new investment and redeployment of some funds to get us to reclaim America's role as the leading exporter of intellectual capital. The United States can be first again on a global scale but only if voters understand that reclaiming the title is less important than regaining the momentum. And that's where big ideas originate. How should Americans support a complex higher education system wrestling with credentials vs. degrees? Does the application of technology differ by sector and institutional type? How can the federal policy on research better support universities as incubators of new ideas, programs and products?

In the end, higher education is about the promise of America. It's our responsibility to make sure that we live up to the promises that generations before have made on our behalf. In doing so, we must be certain that the vision that is offered is worthy of their efforts. In our "race to the top", Americans must first understand the need for the journey, the obstacles in the path, and where to plant the flag when they get there.