President Obama announced Thursday a new proposal to cover the cost of two years of community college tuition for any and all American students who maintain good grades.

While the plan seemed radical to somemdashand others wondered how the U.S. government would pay for itmdashthe idea of providing access to free higher education has gradually become a mainstream talking point among liberal and progressive intelligentsia in the last few years. Now that healthcare is off the table, the next big liberal agenda item appears to be universal higher ed.

The argument is essentially economic: there is a gaping chasm between the level of education the American workforce has versus the level it needs to qualify for the jobs of today, and of the future. That#8217s largely because hundreds of millions of working class Americans, who were raised in the 1960s, #821770s, #821780s and even #821790s, didn#8217t grow up with computers and didn#8217t get an advanced degree. Instead, they got manufacturing and factory jobs when they graduated from high school. But fast-forward to today and those manufacturing and factory jobs simply don#8217t exist anymore. The vast majority of jobs available in the current economy require at least associate#8217s degrees, and more often bachelor#8217s degreesmdashnot to mention competency online.

It#8217s that economic reality that has lead people like Robert Shapiro, a former economic advisor for both Clinton and Obama, to suggest that community colleges should offer free, voluntary and regular Internet and information technology classes at night #8220to any adult in America#8221 who wants it.

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#8220There is a social responsibility and and a large aggregate economic benefit to upgrade all those skills,#8221 Shapiro told TIME in an interview late last year. #8220And these are not skills for a particular profession; they are general purpose skills. And you could do it easily for under a billion dollars a year because the investment is already there. You#8217ve already got the computer labs, you#8217ve already got the computers. This a a traditional mission of the community colleges.#8221

William Galston, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former domestic policy advisor to Bill Clinton, has suggested that the U.S. government should come right out and create a nationwide online public universitymdashthe National Online University, he calls itmdashwhere anyone could get a degree, in their own time, for free.

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