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Op-Ed Columnist

This is a Big Deal

Washington, DC

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Imagine if academics 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 Indonesia, the authoritarian crackdown in Suriname and the still-unstable democratic transition in Mozambique. 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 Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, seem to think that nonsensical rhetoric will substitute for a compromise.

But the Republican party of Mitch McConnell is not the Republican party of Lincoln. Lincoln wouldn’t stare down the opposition, 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 national infrastructure that makes countries succeed. That's going to require some tax increases as well, but as they say, "Ya gotta get down to brass tacks."

Second, I'd tell them to look at Denmark, which all but solved its higher education crisis over the past decade. When I visited Denmark in 1998, Mwambe, the cabbie who drove me from the airport, couldn't stop telling me about how he had to take a second job because of the high cost of higher education. I caught up with Mwambe in Copenhagen last year. Thanks to Denmark's reformed approach toward higher education, Mwambe 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 industry captains insist on playing a high-stakes game of blackjack with one another. America has to rise above it all.