A better educated workforce is needed to compete more effectively. A high school education is no longer sufficient in a post-industrial society. But can enough people afford that?
Yes, but they need to work for it, in a different way than you think: balance the minimum wage against tuition costs.
The ever-increasing costs of higher education are well-known. A state school like The Ohio State University wants over $21,000 a year for tuition, room and board for in-state students (private schools can be triple that.)
All multiplied by four years of course. Plus an average rise in costs of about five percent per year. Student loans, the way many pay for at least part of their education, average over four percent interest rates.
These costs drive some students away from higher education entirely, while those who graduate in debt suffer a loss in productiveness to society for years as they pay off what they owe. If they pay off what they owe - Americans currently hold $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, and about eight million young people are in default.
The only way to get a free or low-cost education is receive a limited number of need-based scholarships, to be really good at sports, or through the Post-9/11 GI Bill. No one begrudges people good at football or who volunteered for the military a shot at college; the point is that handing out education as a reward to a few misses the value to our nation of unfettered access to education for the many.
Three Democrats have offered their versions of a solution (the Republicans seem more in favor of actually cutting funding for higher education.) None are very practical.
-- Eight months ago President Obama proposed a low-cost community college-based program with many hoops built into it. Anyone ever heard anything more about that idea since the big speech?
-- Bernie Sanders would introduce a bill designed to make state schools tuition-free for all, in part by passing a tax on financial transactions, including stock, bond, and derivatives trades. Thoughts on the viability of that idea?
-- Hillary Clinton wants $175 billion in Federal grants (Clinton would pay for the plan by capping the value of itemized deductions wealthy families can take on their tax returns) to go to states that guarantee students would not have to take out loans to cover tuition at four-year schools. In return for the money, states would have to end budget cuts and increase spending on higher education, while also working to slow the growth of tuition. See any potential points of failure in Clinton's plan?
It was once realistic for a student to work his or her way through school. That can be made possible again.
In 1978, tuition, room and board at The Ohio State University, as an example, was $1,253. The Federal minimum wage was $2.65. It took 472 hours, less than ten hours a week, to earn a year at school (leaving out taxes for simplicity.)
In 2015, the cost for a year at The Ohio State University is $21,000 and the Federal minimum wage is $7.25. That means it will take 2,896 hours to earn a year at school, an impossible 55 hours a week. It can't be done.
So consider this.
In-state tuition, room and board cannot exceed what someone can earn at minimum wage working 20 hours a week. A state can subsidize the gap, or a state could raise its minimum wage as needed to allow students to earn more, and thus the state could raise its tuition costs. States would decide themselves where the balance is, but one way or another, a student willing to work half-time could afford to go to college and graduate debt-free.
Could it be that simple?