It strikes me that the basic argument boils down to examining and exploring the goals of education.
Of course, universities are training workforce. Students want to get good jobs someday. Public universities receive funding with the assumption that the students will graduate, acquire high-earning jobs, and pay back the cost of their education in taxes over time. However, if this is the primary goal, perhaps then google and apple and facebook should contribute to the costs of training these people.
Universities are also teaching people to think critically - to consider multiple factors and make a reasoned decision. This obviously requires some basic knowledge (the “multiple factors” to be considered), as well as the ability to reason and judge. As Aristotle suggested, “to be a good critic generally”, a person “must have had an all-round education.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1; 1095a). Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bekker page 1095a
Among other things, Americans have decided that this ability to “be a good critic generally” is vital for the American democracy. Over the past 200ish years, as Americans consistently expanded the vote (to non-property owners, to African Americans and non-white people, to women, to 18-year-olds), they also recognized the need to expand educational opportunities to help these voters make responsible civic decisions (so the argument goes). This is another reason why the American public has decided to fund higher education as a common good - to train citizens who will participate responsibly in democratic processes.
But perhaps the best explanation of what universities should offer is the chance for students to pursue the “happy life” (again, Aristotle). Aristotle suggested that the happy life is thought to be the life that conforms to virtue [excellence] (Nicomachean Ethics, Book 10; 1177a Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bekker page 1177a)
Of course, there is no single definition of “happiness” or “excellence/virtue”, but I suspect that most of us have this as a general goal for life, and I also suspect that few of us would object to an education that encouraged students to investigate the road to happiness and a life of excellence. It doesn’t have to be college, but college is a good place to do a lot of investigating. In addition, for many people, a good-paying job and a responsible and robust civic life are good components for building a happy life.
The article that started this thread struggled to differentiate between intelligence, education, ability, and achievement. It was also surprisingly dismissive of the importance of grinding hard work to learning and achievement (learning how to work hard is not a lesson unique to college, but it is an important lesson to learn). Of course, there are problems in higher education with grade-inflation, claims to moral superiority, the exorbitant costs (of mostly private schools), and the other social problems that accompany this ticket into the modern American aristocracy
(see here: How College Became a Competition Divorced From Learning - The Atlantic
and here: The Birth of the New American Aristocracy - The Atlantic)
On the other hand, the post-WWII-GI-Bill democratization of higher education has made college a reality for unprecedented numbers of middle- and working-class Americans, improving countless lives and ushering in the most prosperous and peaceful and successful (by pretty much any metric) society in human history.
I guess what I’m trying to say is best summed up in my friend’s observation:
Most people go to college because they want to get a good job. However, just going to college won’t land you a good job. Going to college and learning a lot of important things will get you a good job.
The “learning a lot of important things” is really the key part, whether for a good job, responsible citizenship, or that elusive “happy life”.