Jesse Jackson says it’s time for free public colleges for all Americans. As the civil rights activist writes in the Huffington Post:

This country can’t afford to waste a generation. High-quality public education has been central to our success. We led the world in providing K-12 public education. With the GI Bill after World War II, we offered an entire generation free access to college or advanced training. The result was the best-educated work force in the world, which helped build the American middle class.

All now agree that college or advanced training is more important than ever, yet we are making it less and less affordable. College tuition is soaring because the state contribution to budgets is being slashed. We’re privatizing public colleges piecemeal by putting more and more of the costs on the students.

This, of course, is hardly news. But while Congress and the president argue about the interest rate on Subsidized Stafford Loans, Jackson argues this is a very serious problem requiring dramatic action. He explains:

We should go the other way. Invest the money needed — an estimated $30 billion a year — to make public colleges free for all who qualify. Let all children know that if they can get the education, then they earn.

This is a promising idea, and he’s not the first to suggest it. How to accomplish this, however, is debatable.

For decades reasonably affordable public universities were the norm in America. While the country moved to debt financing for higher education in last century, the country never had a specific strategy to replace state support with student debt. No one ever seems to have argued that it would be better for America if students assumed huge debt just to attend state universities. But perhaps a specific policy is the only way to get out of this problem.

Free public college is affordable, however. That $30 billion a year sure looks like a big number but, as Katrina vanden Heuvel points out in the Washington Post, “Mitt Romney’s proposal to eliminate the estate tax would cost about four times that sum.” And we’ve got the money, or we almost do. Last year, for instance, the U.S. military spent $20.2 billion, just for air conditioning, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer