In your 'real' world where everyone must frantically scamble to survive, civilization never leaves the caves.
We have massive surpluses across the world, 98%R of the wealth is owned by a tiny fraction of the people, food is piled up and wasted to protect markets, and yet there are still idiots claiming that we just cannot afford to educate everyone.
We cannot afford not to, if we want to survive into the 22nd century and beyond.
Its not a gravy train, our surpluses drove our technological advantages, which in turn drove our surpluses.
But what should and shouldn't be is of cold comfort to someone leaving high school right now, who is forced to make this choice in a world where education is expensive. I'm sick and tired of people shaming everyone for getting a "useful" education.
I'm all for education reform - note in my original post I mentioned that comprehensive education died when it got too expensive. But can we, for once, stop booing and shaming people who choose rationally within the existing system? Can we also stop giving people excuses for choosing poorly within this system?
We have a society where it costs six figures to get a degree. This is a damn shame and should be fixed. But knowing this people still get degrees they can't afford, and then tell a sob story to the press about how their $100K+ degree can't find them a job. Well, shit.
The solution to this problem is to make education cheaper, not to shelter and coddle people who are incapable of making a rational decision.
 To address your point:
> "Education plus time to think drives innovation."
I agree, but I do think that we are inevitably returning to a state where education plus time to think are going to become rare luxuries. Our innovation will suffer as a result - has already suffered as a result.
But I don't think there's anything we can do to stop this. The US gained an incredible industrial lead over the rest of the world early on, which allowed to elevate its quality of life well beyond anything the world had seen, which in turn drove the wheels of innovation and invention.
But decades of mismanagement, rampant robber-baron capitalism, and simple globalization has meant that the US middle class is gutted. It's getting more and more desperate out there - more and more people working multiple jobs, more and more people making large cutbacks to their quality of life to make ends meet. This is a vicious cycle, to be certain, but I can't see how to stop it.