I’ve been saying for years that we need to have a national debate about whether we want to have a public higher education system in this country, and that our failure to have that debate is killing public higher ed. I believe that to be true. With taxpayer support for many public colleges sliding toward single-digit percentages, with out-of-state tuition at some public universities approaching Harvard’s, with in-state applicants losing seats to make room for those out-of-state revenue streams in students’ clothing, we’re abandoning the idea of public higher education without giving that idea the respect of saying so.

And yet something curious is happening as a result. Slowly, haltingly, but with growing confidence, voices are beginning to rise in support of the concept of a higher education that is not merely public, but actually free. Economist Jeffrey Sachs claimed in a 2011 book that we could eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities nationwide for an investment of little as $15 billion a year, and since then the idea has been popping up more and more frequently in public discussion.

It’s not a new idea, of course. As a delegate to the US Student Association’s congresses in the early 1990s I remember ritually endorsing an end to tuition in resolutions every summer. But in those days the idea felt more than a little pro forma. Of course college should be free, we’d say, and then we’d go back to fighting tuition hikes and lobbying against Pell Grant cuts.

Back then, however, tuition was close enough to free that keeping prices down, or rolling them back a bit, seemed like a reasonable enough compromise. When I graduated, the average annual tuition at a four-year college in the United States — in 2013 dollars — was $3,614. (Ten years earlier it’d been just $2,318.) Today it stands at $8,893.

When the status quo becomes unbearable, the quixotic can start to feel prudent.

The latest commentator to make an extended case for free public higher education is Aaron Bady, who published an essay on Al Jazeera America this week arguing that public education that isn’t free isn’t actually “public” at all. “A university that thinks and behaves like a private-sector corporation,” he writes, “charging its consumers what the market will bear, cutting costs wherever it can and using competition with its peers as its measure of success … is a public university in name only.”

Bady framed his argument as a brief for public higher education as a public good. But some have risen to claim that such a vision is elitism in disguise, a giveaway for the wealthy masquerading as public-spiritedness. The most vociferous of these is Matt Bruenig, who argued yesterday (at his site and on Twitter) that eliminating tuition at public colleges would have no effect on the class composition of the American student body, and would in fact “overwhelmingly benefit rich kids.”

Bruenig is right that the lowest income quartile has seen smaller increases in college costs than the rest of the student body in recent decades (though his data only take us up to 2007, well before the current recession’s massive  tuition hikes). There’s a sad irony to the fact that public higher ed pricing was less regressive, in relative terms, a generation ago than it is today. But Bruenig’s own charts show that even the poorest students have seen their costs rise since the 1990s, and that increases in costs for the middle class have been steep.

There are other problems with Bruenig’s analysis. He leaves independent students out of his calculations, and as Jordan Weissmann writes at The Atlantic this morning, those students represent a huge, growing, and disproportionately poor segment of the student body. He neglects the changing mission of the American college, and the effect that college costs may be having on perpetuating a skewed status quo. He ignores the fact that a dollar “spent” on college via the accumulation of debt has a different impact on a student’s prospects than a dollar spent out of savings. He has a disturbing tendency to conflate the struggling middle class with “the rich.”

The core of Bruenig’s complaint with free public higher ed, however, is that it isn’t primarily a social welfare program for the poor. And though Bruenig’s eagerness to prove that point leads him to overstate it, the fact is that he’s right. Universal free public higher education, in the short run, would provide a greater economic boost, in raw numbers, to the middle class and the rich than it would to those in poverty.

But so do libraries. So do roads. So do fire departments. So do high schools. The argument for free public higher education isn’t that it’s a targeted income redistribution program, it’s that it’s a universal, communal project, a powerful concrete statement of our values and priorities as a society.

By happy coincidence, as Bady was posting his essay I was putting the finishing touches on the design of the tee shirt you see above. The ideal of “free education” expressed in that shirt is broader than that expressed in Bady’s piece, just as SDS’s 1960s slogan “A Free University in a Free Society” was. But the core of each argument is, I think, the same — that the mission of the public university, the mission of the truly public university, has profound merit.