Does crushing debt discourage college enrollment?

The most confusing argument I see in the higher education funding debate is the one that basically proceeds by saying that 1) human capital is super-important and that 2) therefore we should publicly fund its development. Assume (1) is true. How does (2) follow?

Usually arguments like this have a second premise. So for basic science research for instance, you will see an argument like this: 1) basic science research is super-important, 2) it will not be undertaken without public finance (or not enough of it will), so 3) we should publicly fund its development.

The problem in the higher education context is that it is not at all clear that “it will not be undertaken without public finance.” If anything, we are seeing debt levels rise and enrollment rise at the same time. It looks like even if we assume the crushing horrible debt story is correct, it has not followed that people stop going to college. So it is not as if removing public funding means that we lose that super-important human capital development. We continue to get it. People continue to go to these schools even with public funding flooding out.

This is not to say that there is no argument for public funding here, only that this particular argument does not work. Perhaps you think students deserve to have publicly subsidy. Perhaps you think there is some social equity reason for doing so. I have concerns with those points, but they are at least open to make. If people keep flooding into schools despite the prices rising and debt levels going up, it is not obviously the case that the public should fund them. If anything, getting all the sweet human capital for $0 is a huge steal for the public!