03/27/2012 12:07 pm ET Updated May 27, 2012

The Students Are Right, California

College student debt in America just passed $1 trillion dollars outstanding. That's more than the Obama stimulus program; more than the infamous TARP bailout; more than Europe's sovereign debt rescue funding; more than the latest federal deficit reduction plan.

California's state university students have taken to the streets of their campuses to get to the heart of the matter: the ever-rising tuition and fees bills they face every year is the trigger for all that borrowing against their future income. This is the new "mortgage crisis," as today's young people are forced to mortgage their future income stream to pay ever-increasing amounts for ever-decreasing quality of learning opportunities.

With the onset of the Great Recession, California had cut its support for higher education by two-thirds from the baseline level of the early '90s, and forced the Cal State and Community College systems to cut over 300,000 student positions and hundreds of courses and faculty jobs.

Both the UC System and Cal State leadership estimated that a billion dollars would be required to restore the universities to their level of functioning back in 2001, but that level funding was nowhere to be found in 2011, especially as federal stimulus funding ran out. Instead, along with continued double-digit tuition and fee increases, another 200,000 student positions were cut from the Community College system, and 40,000 from the Cal State universities. Some schools were forced to cancel classes -- especially during the summer sessions.

When you think about it, for centuries, colleges have been able to get away with an enviable business model -- they have conditioned their "customers" to accept year after year price increases well above any measured inflation rates in exchange for no improvement in the service actually delivered. As soon as you sign on and show up, you are told by those in charge how lucky you are to be there with the privilege of paying the latest toll increases.

Imagine being any other business that could get away with that -- here's your newest model iPad: it's slower, has fewer features, but we're going to up the price 11% on you, this year and next and next, etc.

And that "etc." tells a story in itself. Remember the movie Animal House, when John Belushi's Bluto character laments, after his fraternity is banned from campus, "Seven years of college down the drain." In the 1980s, that was a funny exaggeration; in 2012, it's all too true and not so funny.

Right now, the average American college graduate takes six years to do so -- and that's just the average, many take a Bluto quota and more. Not because they have been goofing off at the frat house -- but because of the combination of college workforce rules and budget cuts that have shrunk class availability down to a virtual lottery opportunity at best.

And that's if he or she actually graduates -- 45% drop out. That's right -- the American university system is producing drop-outs at about the same rate as the worst of our inner-city high schools. For every Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, there are thousands who have to quit college while they're behind -- on their coursework, on their majors, on their debts. They have been forced to go back to work to make ends meet while they study, but most academic calendars are not set up at all to accommodate working students, so they have no choice but to borrow more if they can even get their courses, or quit and face their debt loads without a degree.

So what can Senator Blutarski from California do about this downward spiral of American higher education? California once led the world in providing affordable access to college to all classes of its rising generations who were qualified. Today, our taxpayers have said no to this commitment. Their attitude is in part a sort of generational war for resources argument of "I've got mine, who needs yours" shortsightedness that gets worse as recession and the monetary policies that go with curing it cut the income stream of retirees from bank accounts and savings bonds.

But in another part, the taxpayer revolt against the ever-rising cost of higher education has the same element of logic as the students who closed off the Santa Cruz campus and marched through Berkeley in their tuition protest. They want universities to get with the program that the rest of commercial and non-profit society has been forced to adjust to since the financial meltdown of 2007-08.

The California taxpayer is looking at the state's campuses like the Germans are looking at the Greeks. They want the campuses to get their act together and produce better outcomes at a lower cost. And here is where California has an opportunity that is far better than the Greeks have.

California, if it sets its mind to it, can produce a new model to lead the nation out of its student debt death spiral to a new era of "no frills, four-year" college degrees. All it takes is a new academic calendar that uses the whole year to do the job (like the rest of us do in our daily lives); that employs the vast capacities of the Internet to enhance delivery of digitized course data and dialog (like the rest of us do in our daily lives); and that uses both the above new approaches to keep the shop open to accommodate customers who work (like every other enterprise does in our modern society).

Universities have long sung the merits of sticking to their traditions of faculty guilds and 15th century academic calendars by boasting that colleges, like the army and the church, are among human society's few long-term surviving institutions. But even the Church has changed more than the colleges -- at least there was a Vatican II that worked. And as we know all to well, it's not your granddad's army anymore, either -- just ask the folks at the other end of a drone attack.

Ironically, universities that continue to refuse to get down to the "business" of adapting to the modern realities of their students' lives and instead force them into a form of indentured servitude for a good deal of their adulthood have collectively forgotten that their precious traditional academic calendar was itself invented to serve a purely commercial 15th century reality. The college world's leisurely working schedule mimics the agrarian calendar precisely because farming was the "business" of 95% of the families who sent their students to college way back when -- summers were off not for faculty R&R&R (the third "R", to be fair, is for Research) -- but for students to return for tilling the soil and harvesting the grain.

California can lead the U.S. in harvesting the talent of its youngest citizen-voters by providing a new mode of access to college degrees that fits the times and the economy, and meets the challenge of the rising world around us. The need is there; the opportunity is there; the technology is there; the roadmap is there. What is lacking is imagination, willpower, and acceptance of the reality that we are sowing the seeds of national economic decline by our indifference to America's "graduation gridlock."

The United States has exchanged its former world leadership in college completion for the dubious honor of just racking up the most college loan debt! America's jobs of the future -- Rick Santorum notwithstanding -- will require at least 15% more college graduates than we are now producing. It appears the next generation of illegal immigrants to these shores won't be the agrarian workers of yesterday, but rather the B.A.s and Master's degree holders and Ph.D.s smuggled into the country by U.S. businesses desperate to retain a competitive posture with respect to the rest of the world's emerging powers, whose leadership and taxpayers have not despaired of the value of higher education.