11/17/2011 05:36 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2012

Where Public Education Produces Winners

If media headlines on the declining quality of students being produced by America's public education system ever get you down, take a trip to the Binghamton University campus of the State University of New York, or SUNY. You will be surprised at what you find: confident, bright, engaged, and inquisitive students who are aware of the world around them, and not afraid to express their opinions. These students get superb education for around $5,000 a year!

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to a group of 24 students from SUNY's Binghamton University and Stony Brook University campuses. They were part of a program underwritten by the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women. The non-sectarian foundation provides scholarships to enable New York women to pursue carreers in certain fields; at SUNY the funds underwrite education in International Relations and Global Affairs, the topic I'd been invited to address.

I speak regularly to business, military and academic audiences, and must confess to a bit of apprehension when SUNY asked if I would engage with this group at the end of a class day, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Would these young students -- SUNY juniors, mostly -- really want to focus for three hours on a topic that glazes the eyes of even graduate students? I needn't have worried.

After my 50 minute monologue I found myself rolling into a wide-ranging discussion that was as intense and informed as any I've had in New York City, Boston or Washington, D.C. Why are we still taught from birth that America is the forever exceptional nation, a student asked? (Most of the class felt this notion was an aberration that belonged to the last century.) The rise of Asia, especially China; the necessity of America's involvement in Libya; money in politics; the Obama foreign policy scorecard; the relevance of NATO in an age when most college students have no idea of the Cold War; and America's role in the Middle East, were some of the topics subjected to lively debate. What does "leading from behind" in Libya mean, a perplexed student asked to much laughter. (P.S.: I've never been able to understand this term, and have it on good authority that President Obama was quite miffed when he heard it!) At least two of the participants were going to study Arabic, an inspired decision given the paucity of Arabic speakers in the State Department.

At dinner with a couple of the students I was struck with how rooted in reality they were. "Most of us come from working, middle-class families," one of my dinner companions told me. She'd come to SUNY not only because her parents were unable to pay for an Ivy League college but because they did not want their daughter to owe tens of thousands of dollars upon graduation. "Sure, I cried a bit as some of my friends went off to those colleges," she told me. But after two years at SUNY she knows that she is getting an undergraduate education equal to and perhaps even better than anything an expensive college provides. And the low tuition at SUNY will give her a huge career and life-style advantage as newly minted graduates battle the continuing economic recession and joblessness.

It was one of the most inspiring three hours I'd spent in quite a while. If these state-university students were any indication, the country will be in very capable hands when they take charge.