Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Politics of Student Debt

Let me get something out of the way before directly addressing the topic of student debt. I have spent 13 consecutive years at some combination of universities, and, at the beginning, a community college, working through various degrees toward a PhD in philosophy. At the completion of this degree, barring any serious financial difficulties, I will personally have, due to scholarships and a significant amount of help from my grandparents, no student debt (although through marriage, I am apparently responsible for some of my wife's accumulated debt).

I have, however, over the years, encountered many students who have struggled to balance some amount of debt (through student loans), scholarships and work, along with their education, and know that this combination often puts less financially able students at a disadvantage in time management in terms of study, due to the fact that having to work introduces a perverse set of incentives regarding use of time.

But above all, student debt is political. Which is why two pieces by Jeffrey J. Williams, in Dissent Magazine, are a must read (the first is from Summer 2006, the second from Fall 2008). Student debt is a political question because it limits the later choices of students through financial burden. The numbers cited by Williams tell the story:
The reason that debt has increased so much and so quickly is that tuition and fees have increased, at roughly three times the rate of inflation. Tuition and fees have gone up from an average of $924 in 1976, when I first went to college, to $6,067 in 2002. The average encompasses all institutions, from community colleges to Ivies. At private universities, the average jumped from $3,051 to $22,686. In 1976, the tuition and fees at Ivies were about $4,000; now they are near $33,000. The more salient figure of tuition, fees, room, and board (though not including other expenses, such as books or travel to and from home) has gone up from an average of $2,275 in 1976, $3,101 in 1980, and $6,562 in 1990, to $12,111 in 2002. At the same rate, gasoline would now be about $6 a gallon and movies $30 [for updated numbers see his 2008 piece].
As I discuss in my courses (usually the one called Reasoning and Critical Thinking), there are two primary problems with the accumulation of debt:
  1. it shifts the burden of one's education from a social cost to a private cost
  2. it constrains student career choice. This means that future political activists are more than likely forced to choose careers because of money rather than interest (think of the tight budgets of non-profits). Unless, of course, you want to go work for the bad guys: business and finance work, or right-wing think tanks that provide the ideological justification for the exploitation of the lower classes and the subversion of democracy, are usually quite well-funded. I have a hard time believing that Right Wingers don't explicitly recognize this. They know that the sides are not equal and that money and its resources are tilting the scales to their side.
So first, about the shift in the social burden. The organization of post-war education sought to transform the university system into a social good, training future members of a complex industrial society. While this education certainly possessed a strong ideological component, it aimed toward the inculcation of values compatible with combination of democratic and meritocratic ideas. While there are worthwhile questions to ask about the role of the university in propagating a particular ideology, it had strong benefits in terms of social mobility. However, higher education has not been excepted from the neo-liberal program of de-funding government programs under the logic of 'fiscal restraint' and balanced budgets and the concomitant privatization (or partial privatization) of public goods (or, in stronger terms, public property). When fiscal austerity is implemented, one target is often public education. This is currently happening in California; and UC Berkeley's plight is a well publicized example of a larger trend. A friend's blog often discusses the relationship between Californian politics and his life as a contract professor at CSU Stanislaus, where I did my BA in philosophy (let me also add that he is a fine person and educator).

Ideologically, society has also shifted in its approach to higher education. Like many other issues, it is no longer seen in terms of its societal benefit, but as a private benefit. Each individual now receives an education, and its public benefits are down-played or ignored. Education is less about developing one's interests or interaction with others than it is about job potential. Throw a business school into a university, and you get a well-funded propaganda arm for the privatization of education and the ideology of atomistic education, rather than education as a form of social solidarity. So, while the humanist and meritocratic (and, more egalitarian) view of education
aimed to create a strong civic culture [, the] new funding paradigm, by contrast, views the young not as a special group to be exempted or protected from the market but as fair game in the market. It extracts more work—like workfare instead of welfare—from students, both in the hours they clock while in school as well as in the deferred work entailed by their loans. Debt puts a sizable tariff on social hope.
Not only that, but debt, as Williams so eloquently points out, is a mode of pedagogy. I can't quote all his points without violating fair use, but I can summarize in point form. Again. READ the ORIGINAL. In sum, debt teaches a worldview. For our purposes:
  1. Debt teaches that higher education is a consumer service. I can't tell how wide-spread this conception of education has become. The number of students who approach me as if their mark is a business transaction is unbelievable, and it justifies (in their minds) a fairly disrespectful approach to their peers and to their professors.
  2. "debt teaches career choices. It teaches that it would be a poor choice to wait on tables while writing a novel or become an elementary school teacher at $24,000 or join the Peace Corps. It rules out culture industries such as publishing or theater or art galleries that pay notoriously little or nonprofits like community radio or a women’s shelter."
This was my second point, stated in a less partisan manner. Debt also teaches that activism is a poor venture compared to contributing to greasing the wheels of capitalism, whether in business or in the right-wing lobby and ideology industry (which is very well funded). But the important point is that not just future activists and artists are bought out, everybody with debt is. Williams also proposes various measures to end the problem of debt, and it is more surprising that progressives/radicals don't make it a much more important part of their platform. Let us not forget that The Communist Manifesto included the demand, which today, is rarely considered 'communist,' for "Free education for all children in public schools [and the] Abolition of child's factory labor in its present form." To most, unless one is an advocate of school vouchers, this demand is obviously beneficial for society.

Which is why a free university is my preferred solution to the problem of debt. While many would balk and say it's impossible, it is just one more social program demolished by inflated and unjustified military-industrial spending. As Williams notes,
Adolph Reed, as part of a campaign of the Labor Party for “Free Higher Ed,” has made the seemingly utopian but actually practical proposal of free tuition for all qualified college students. If education is a social good, he reasons, then we should support it; it produced great benefits, financial as well as civic, under the GI Bill (see his “A GI Bill for Everyone,” Dissent, Fall 2001); and, given current spending on loan programs, it is not out of reach. He estimates that free tuition at public institutions would cost $30 billion to $50 billion a year, only a small portion of the military budget. In fact, it would save money by cutting out the middle stratum of banking. The brilliance of this proposal is that it applies to anyone, rich or poor, so that it realizes the principle of equal opportunity but avoids “class warfare.”
Free education is not an impossibility.But it will only happen with significant pressure and within a culture where professors and students see a common solidarity in the social benefit of education. Professors and students share a common struggle in fighting against the commodification of higher education. It should be part of the package that free university, in order to function correctly, insured proper funding and a return to the emphasis on tenure and professorial investment by the university, instead of the reduction of university teaching to part-time and contract work, especially in the humanities. As I have already stated, this situation is political: the transformation of the university to a semi-private and pro-business institution, insofar as it emaciates the schools and faculties that encourage the cultivation of critical thinking skills, has a definite bias toward the neo-liberal status quo. In a world where the ideals of neo-liberalism are practically discredited, there is no reason to let them uncritically dominate the world of education.


santi said...

This was very well written, and very relevant to my life. One thing you forgot to mention is that many potential students cannot get into school due to an inability get loans without a co-signer. If you are poor, finding somebody with good credit who is willing to vouch for thousands in loans is difficult to say the least.

Devin Zane Shaw said...

That's true, I did assume that the price of loans would be a barrier to some students. I think that Williams does a much better job talking about the details of loans in his piece from 2008.

Josh Kurdys said...

I would like to amplify your point about debt affecting the job options of students. It is not simply that students are discouraged from entering social, political or cultural careers that may serve their intellectual interests, it's that these careers remain the provenance of those who lack serious concerns about debt and future earnings.

Recently, concerns about socio-economic diversity have shown up in college admissions literature alongside concerns for gender, cultural and racial diversity. Yet, the dawning of class consciousness in undergraduate admissions has had virtually no impact on graduate admissions and the issue of socio-economic diversity among faculty is unheard of. In short, if students with debt are discouraged from entering marginally lucrative professions, such as humanities education, this assures that those who occupy the profession will only share their socio-economic perspective vicariously.