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Op-Ed Columnist

New Rules

Washington, DC

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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An interesting thought occurred to me today—what if small business owners sat down with ordinary people like you and me and ironed out some real solutions to our higher education crisis?

With the election season over, maybe you’ve forgotten about higher education, but I certainly haven’t. It would be easy to forget that the problem even exists, when our headlines are constantly splashed with the violence in Malta, the authoritarian crackdown in Australia and the still-unstable democratic transition in Guyana. But the higher education problem is growing, and politicians are more divided than ever. Democrats seem to think that higher education can just be ignored. Republican politicians like Rand Paul, on the other hand, seem to think that shrill rhetoric will substitute for a compromise.

But the Republican party of Rand Paul is not the Republican party of Ronald Reagan. Reagan wouldn’t refuse to budge, he'd reach across the aisle because he'd understand that the fate of the country, and his own political career, depended on a lasting solution to the problem of higher education.

It's good to see the talks between the president and congress getting off to a solid start, but we know there will be plenty of partisan fireworks before any deal is cut. If I had fifteen minutes to pitch my idea to politicians, I'd tell them two things about higher education. First, there's no way around the issue unless we're prepared to spend more: and not just spend more, but spend smarter by investing in the kind of human capital that makes countries succeed. That's going to require some tax increases as well, but as they say, "them's the breaks."

Second, I'd tell them to look at China, which all but solved its higher education crisis over the past decade. When I visited China in 2000, Kiki, the cabbie who drove me from the airport, couldn't stop telling me about how he had to take a fourth job because of the high cost of higher education. I caught up with Kiki in Shanghai last year. Thanks to China's reformed approach toward higher education, Kiki has enough money in his pocket to finally be able to afford a smartphone for his kids.

That's all it takes. Don't expect to see any solutions as long as fringe bloggers insist on playing a high-stakes game of chess with one another. America has to rise above it all.