So, the topic of skyrocketing college tuition rates and the mountains of debt with which students are graduating came up in a recent SECB interview, and it got me thinking: What if there were no free, public K-12 schools, either?

Let's say we moved back to the good old days before government started intervening into every aspect of our daily lives, and we just left it to families, churches, and the free market to educate our children as they deem best. What would that educational landscape look like? I mean, forget college tuition—wouldn't most families struggle just to send their kids through high school?

According to data compiled by the Council for American Private Education, the average US private K-12 tuition was $10,045 in 2007-2008, ranging from an average $9,066 per year at Catholic schools to an average $16,247 at non-religious schools. That's a lot of money, and given the past four years of inflation it's no doubt climbed higher. Currently here in Seattle, O'Dea High School starts at $10,032 for Catholic students, Seattle Prep costs $14,700, and the ritzy Lakeside School runs $27,250 a year. Full-time preschool and daycare aren't any cheaper.

Of course, many families could not afford to pay private school tuition, and so given the state's interest in assuring a well educated citizenry and workforce, we endeavor to provide a quality public school option at a not inconsiderable taxpayer expense. Which raises the question: Don't we have the same or similar public interest when it comes to higher education?

At the time compulsory public education became widespread in the United States during the latter half of the 19th century, a high school diploma was as much as most American workers would need, with colleges and universities mostly reserved for the elite. But after World War II, thanks in part to the GI Bill, but also due to the demands of our increasingly complex and technological economy, states started investing heavily in expanding and subsidizing their public university systems, dramatically increasing access. Indeed, many of the lawmakers who have slashed funding for higher education in recent years, themselves benefited from highly subsidized tuition back during our public university system's heyday.

So what has changed between, say, 1980 and today? Is a college education less useful, less economically necessary now than it was 32 years ago? Quite the opposite.

I guess my point is, we either value a college education, or we don't. If we truly believe that a highly educated citizenry is a necessary component of a functional economy and democracy, then why do we draw this arbitrary (and increasingly stark) distinction between high school and college? Why do we fully subsidize the education of unskilled workers while leaving our potential future engineers, doctors, nurses, business creators, etc. to fend for themselves? Where is the economic or civic sense in that?

Of course, there isn't any sense in providing a free high school education while pricing otherwise qualified applicants out of a college education, which is why the hard right is busy trying to defund both. Cognitive dissonance problem solved.