Sometimes Washington, DC can be very frustrating.

It’s a place where there is often much talk, but no action, or action that may take months or years to have a real impact on families.

Yet, at other times, Washington, DC can be uplifting, a place where bright and dedicated minds gather to roll up their sleeves and solve problems.

This past week was one of those times.

On Wednesday, November 2, I joined more than 200 policymakers, higher education officials and others dedicated to developing workable solutions to rising college costs. The occasion was called “College Costs: Making Opportunity Affordable,” and it was billed by the organizer – the Lumina Foundation for Education – as a “national summit” to develop solutions.

As in any summit, there was some posturing, but to be honest, not nearly as much as I feared going in. And there was very little finger-pointing, but instead a great deal of self-reflection and admittance of blame. Lumina’s summit, ably led by the foundation’s president Martha Lamkin, shone some real light on a serious nation problem.

For instance, Britt Kirwin, chancellor of University of Maryland system, declared that colleges and universities must get their costs under control. Appearing on the day’s opening panel, he set the tone of the day when he said: “We cannot continue with a rise of prices that is greater than inflation. In fact, controlling costs is our moral and ethical responsibility.”

Kirwin then went on to offer the many specific ways in which the Maryland public university system is taking action to address the myriad of issues caused by the rising price of college. He claimed that the shift from need-based financial aid to non-needs tested merit aid, which has accelerated in recent years at schools both private and public, is “simply wrong and must be stopped.”

Most important, Kirwin offered a telling lesson for his fellow college officials about dealing with legislators in his state, and what it takes to secure more funding for public colleges and universities. “It takes a seriousness of purpose on our part to show that we can hold our costs down, and a commitment to use the additional funds we are given to improve teaching and make it possible for all students to graduate with less debt.”

Kirwin’s opening salvo was followed by a series of plenary and breakout panels focusing on various ways to address the college cost issue, ranging from improved college readiness, to year-round Pell Grant aid, to greater utilization of community colleges as a “feeder system” to four-year colleges and universities.

The luncheon speaker was Tom Friedman, columnist for The New York Times and author of the best-selling book, The World is Flat. He held the high-powered audience rapt for nearly 45 minutes, delineating what he calls the 10 events that have changed the world in the past 16 years, beginning with 11-9. That’s right, 11-9, as in November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell, an event that, in Friedman’s view, set in motion much of the world “flattening” that has occurred in the tumultuous and groundbreaking period since then.

All in all, the Lumina-escent day was both a wake-up call and a call to action, cloaked in a positive spirit of shared purpose and shared expectations for our country. Countless speakers shared the concerning news that America no longer has the unquestioned “greatest system” of higher education in the world.

“The rest of the world is catching up, and they are catching up real quick,” said James B. Hunt Jr., the former governor of North Carolina and chairman of the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy.

Hunt offered as evidence a recent conversation he had with a respected CEO of a North America-based technology company. The former Governor, in his distinctive east Carolina drawl, said: “He told me about the 600,000 engineering graduates this year in China and the 300,000 engineering graduates in India. But I wanted to know: are they as good as the 70,000 engineering graduates that we in America are producing?

The former four-term Governor paused – and the audience perceptibly leaned forward – before he shared the succinct answer. “Oh you bet they are, he told me,” declared Hunt. Pausing again, as both a dramatic – and effective – device, Hunt said: “If that doesn’t get our attention, then nothing will.”

It got my attention, and I hope it gets yours.

Just to make sure, consider this: The United States of America, for decades, was the leader of the world in our production of college of college graduates. Now we are in 7th place, the only industrialized nation in the world that is declining in our rate of college participation.

That must change, and all of you, the producers of the current and next cohort of college students, must be part of developing the solutions that will make college accessible and affordable for – and accountable to – all Americans. That’s one of the many reasons why we formed College Parents of America, and we hope that you will tell your friends, family members, neighbors and fellow parents to join our cause.

Here again this week are some links to stories of interest from Inside Higher Ed, a quality online publication that covers the world of colleges and universities with clarity and commitment:

YOU CAN’T DIVORCE TUITION BILLS: 75 colleges are trying a new system for determining financial aid eligibility for students whose parents don’t live together, which vexes everyone involved.

EFFICIENCY OR MEDIOCRITY? Everyone agrees that college admissions is becoming an electronic process, but is that a good thing?

HIGH SCHOOLS AND HIGH COLLEGE COSTS Students’ need for remediation is a major driver of institutions’ (and families’) costs, and a target for policy makers.

DEMOGRAPHIC CHALLENGES At College Board annual meeting, educators seek ways to reach new groups of potential students — and realize it’s not easy.

THE CHANGING GRAD STUDENT POPULATION Total enrollment is up, as is minority enrollment, but difficulties persist with international recruitment.

CHOOSING THE CORE A new plan for general education at Harvard would put many of the selections in students’ hands.

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