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Opinion
Noah Smith

How Free College Can Help Remake the U.S. Economy

Higher education should be more than just an upward mobility track for the country's youth; it needs to be a support system for key industries and the working class.

Vocational training needs to be a bigger part of higher education.

Vocational training needs to be a bigger part of higher education.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP

As the Democrats’ budget bill takes shape, higher education policy is once more a point of contention. It's a good time to rethink the country’s approach to higher ed, which has become increasingly contradictory and unsustainable in recent decades. Most importantly, policymakers should ponder how to make U.S. colleges both an engine of upward mobility and a support system for key industries.

Many people who focus on the problems in the U.S. university system consider only rising tuition and student debt. Others are preoccupied with inequities at elite universities like the Ivy League. Both concerns are legitimate, but the challenges extend far beyond these issues. Start with the fact that the university system has grown increasingly inequitable. As of right now, students from lower-income backgrounds with high test scores are less likely to graduate than high-income students with low scores: