If President Obama truly wants to transform the cost of higher education, however, he could make college free for all students without having to lay out more money to pay for it. That’s because the federal government could take the $69 billion it currently spends to subsidize the cost of college through grants, tax breaks, and work-study funds and instead cover tuition at all public colleges, which came to $62.6 billion in 2012, the most recent data. (The government spends another $197.4 billion on student loans.) That would give all students who want to get a college degree a free option to do so. It could also put pressure on private universities to compete with the free option by reducing their costs, which have risen 13 percent over the last five years.I have a sense that we're going to have to extend the "free" (meaning publicly subsidized) education we pay for in this country. We already provide publicly-funded education through high school. The expansion will need to come because the continual transformation of the economy by technology means that (a) whole industries are dying -- see travel agencies, secretarial pools -- and (b) the only thing like an answer to that problem is to retrain people for whatever new sectors of work are emerging from the constant technological change. But the people being forced out of dying industries are low on the list of those likely to be able to afford the cost of advanced education.
Thus, our options as a country are:
1) Allow our fellow citizens to fall out of the productive/employable classes, which means that they will not be providing tax revenues (and, most probably, will be consuming expensive public welfare programs -- but even if we were to manage to restrain those, they still will not be adding to the common fund),
2) Spend some of our public stores to help make sure people can retrain in productive ways.
The best way to do this would be to establish some right/left limits on what kinds of programs we consider productive enough to merit public funding, probably based on some rolling estimate of which industries are coming-to-be or passing-away due to current changes in technology. We would need to make sure money didn't go to waste, but was directed at programs designed to help people retrain for current careers. This is something that we're just going to have to expect people to do more and more as time goes along, and the poorest most often, so we probably need to think about a solution that doesn't require them to have either money or credit if we want them to succeed. We should want them to succeed, if only for selfish reasons of keeping them off welfare rolls and helping with the taxpaying duties for a larger percentage of their lives.
Public colleges are a good start, but we should really expand especially to vocational schools. A travel agent put out of work by Expedia may not have the chops for a degree in engineering, but might benefit from getting a CDL so she could move to Texas and drive trucks to and from the oil fields. That's something we could do pretty cheaply and relatively quickly, compared to 99 weeks of unemployment benefits, and it would get her back on her feet and into the taxpaying class as quickly as possible. We'd save money, even if it is not in any sense "free," and it would be good for the moral health of our citizenry as a whole if more of them were able to work and fewer were on welfare of any kind.