'The economic return to higher education over a lifetime produces significant compound greater earnings.'
That has been true in the past.
Not exactly. You know what was true in the past? That a good education made you a better person.
Now, I won't deny for a second that there were numerous social and economic factors in getting the 'right' education from the 'right' schools. It's true that being a 'gentleman' was inextricably tied up with class, economic status and the clannishness of the privileged. But it was still about being the right sort of person rather than a more-or-less necessary precursor to employment. The cost in those days was primarily to keep the riff-raff out, rather than any reflection of economic realities (conditions in some British colleges, for example, were abominable).
In spite of all the hypocrisy and all the cant, a liberal education was designed to improve the person. It had little or nothing to do with employment, except inasmuch as employers at the time wanted 'improved' people for a number of lines of work.
Full Disclosure: It's easy for me to talk. I was one of the last people through a system that actually did focus on a decent general education, at a level of government funding that allowed me to finish 4 years of a double major with only $10,000 in debt, payable at a pittance a month over a ten-year term. I'm an arts major who's also a CTO, by the way.