places where free or heavily subsidized higher education has been the norm for decades look a lot less like serfdoms than places where it hasn't.
I'm sorry, but could you elaborate? I've been hearing things like, "People out of college can't find jobs," or, "Salaries are being pushed down." What about, "Employers are cutting benefits"?
In a world where 74% of STEM degree owners don't work in STEM fields, and where 50% of engineers aren't employed as engineers (mostly, services (retail, McDonalds), social services (garbage man), and so forth), people still believe being a viable piece of labor means getting a job. They don't understand that jobs demand labor; labor does not demand jobs. Laborers may open their mouth and demand, DEMAND someone give them a job, but nobody is going to create a job just to coddle you.
The visible, actual situation is exactly what everyone complains about: employers plan 2-3 years ahead for who to hire, and allocate budget. Once they've pushed everyone into so much unpaid (salaried!) overtime they can't sustain business operations anymore, they start the hiring process. 50 engineers apply, and they pick through them for the most submissive, least-troublesome, lowest-salaried applicant they can find. If you cause any grief, management fires you and gets another one.
We have lots of puppies; if this one shits on the floor, I'll tie a rock to it and throw it in a river, and then go to the pet shop to get another one that's better trained. They only cost $20.
There are a number of effects of simply eliminating all government college programs.
The first, up front, is that people cannot immediately send themselves to college. This diminishes the skilled labor pool, creating those weird late-90s issues where programmers make $250k and keep getting sniped away from businesses.
This leads to a situation where a business can't accomplish its strategic goals. THE BUSINESS... CANNOT... ACCOMPLISH ITS GOALS. That hurts businesses. They need 10 engineers and find 3; the engineers are expensive; and other businesses hire them away.
To remedy this, those 2-3 year projections become preparatory. Businesses must hire whoever is floating in the market--which isn't fucking much of anyone--and, usually, just hire an entrant to take up slack. It's the old apprenticeship model: you don't know god damn shit, so we have to pass you the kind of time-consuming task that takes forever, but that you'd have to work deliberately to fuck up by the numbers, and meanwhile send you to college on our dime. At least our engineers aren't spending 4 hours of the day carrying sheet metal back and forth; we pay them $120k, get a minimum wage worker to do that shit. The dude we're training to be an engineer may as well make himself useful.
By the time you've got your new engineer into the swing of things, you've invested a lot of time and effort into this employee. Three months gets a big return, six months gets you less than twice as much of a return, one year gets you less than double what investing six months gets, and eventually then the long tail begins to stretch out; by the time you've started getting serious return, which may only be 6-12 months, you've invested too much into this employee to simply dump him. It's doable, sure; but it's a poor value proposition because the employee is now valuable to the company.
What does all this mean, really?
First off, it means you don't go to college unless there's actually a job waiting for you. That eliminates the sheer waste of building an excess specialized labor force.
Second, it means you go to college on someone else's dime. For this, businesses take much less risk than an individual: they have a good idea of what their needs will be in 3-5 years, whereas an individual has to predict market growth and demand and supply (who else is going to college for IT? Where exactly are the jobs?).
Third, your training is actually in line with current demands. You get specialized experience in whatever organization is sponsoring your development, which means immediate real-world experience.
Fourth, the business actually has some value invested in the employee. Okay, so it's cheap: you cost them, what, $40k salary plus $20k of college and training each year, versus that $80k or $120k engineer. You're cheaper until you're a higher-tier, skilled laborer. Still, they had to invest $60k into a guy who carries buckets of bolts and SoundBlaster cards back and forth for like 4 months; they don't want to dump the guy hammering together rough-in frames and assembled servers for a guy who costs $60k and should definitely not be doing any of that just yet, much less trade their fairly-skilled engineers for someone who costs 80% as much but only provides 5% the value. Don't be a dick, or you'll get fired; but they're not going to fire you just because you don't jump fast enough when they pull the marionette strings.
Finally, it restores some order to the world. Today, hard work, dedication, and a willingness to cripple your career by not working in the field and (in loan systems) by taking on immense debt gets you a chance to spin the roulette wheel and pray for a job. The risk is great and the reward is small: your new employer can easily replace you, so you'd better shut up and obey, and consider a Keurig machine a high benefit. Don't *ever* say the word "pension", even to your most trusted allies; and you'd better be a heavily-vocal opponent of trade unions and, worse, guilds, lest you find yourself quietly replaced by a shiny new college degree burdened by another drooling, retarded shit-container that only gets in the way of the knowledge crammed into its head. When employees have value, the business will look for a good place to invest its value, and it will be loathe to lose that investment to frivolity; hard work, dedication, and a good work ethic will become the most important factors in finding an education and moving forward, with actual job availability secondary only because so many people simultaneously fail to understand the importance of such things.
It's all about putting businesses in a position where they're responsible for the construction of a workforce, and subservient in some small way to that workforce. Today, we prefer to put the workforce in a position where it's responsible for taking up the labor of constructing itself by its own sweat and blood, and to where it is a subservient tool of businesses to be picked up in the bargain aisle and cast away if it doesn't fit satisfactory enough in the hand, regardless of how well it actually performs its function.
I suppose you're right, though: barons and earls had to consider the well-being of their serfs, lest they lose their tithes as their serfs became unable to produce; businesses have no such worry, and need not concern themselves with your ability to eat and to keep good health. Cutting your hours in half so that you do not have the income to afford your home and your food while simultaneously dodging responsibility for your healthcare seemed like a good idea at the time, and was; we can't accomplish quite so much in those skilled laborers to whom we pay salaries, but we can at least make them readily-replaced and thus not eligible to complain about the diminished benefits and salaries we do provide. All of this abuse might actually hurt the business if they were really serfs.