We used to hear more often about those malignant institutions serving, or rather plaguing, the poor: the loan sharks who charged 100% or more per year in interest, the furniture or radios that ended up costing several times their value on the installment plan. Two or three decades ago, however, we didn’t think of an education as being part of the landscape of predation upon the poor. Now, as Astra Taylor and Hannah Appel explain, when it comes to a new crew of “for-profit” colleges, higher education has gone hyena and is tearing at the financial flesh of the poor.
Even mainstream institutions can be sketchy these days, if you look closely enough. Most liberal arts college programs give their students a vague, if exhilarating, sense that the best possible outcome of their vocation is practically an inevitability, and yet there are far from enough tenure-track jobs, top galleries, or niches on bestseller lists for all the people being educated.
Though people make it in all these fields, they are a tiny minority. So many others pay their dues and get little for it, except whatever is inherently meaningful in their education, which won’t, of course, lighten their loan burden at all.
Once upon a time, it was different. The radicalism of the 1960s, for instance, should be chalked up in part to the great freedom of youth at a time when the fat of the land seemed inexhaustible and the safety net unbreakable. The two radicals I know who became wanted fugitives in the 1970s and then tenured faculty members (now retired with pensions) operated in a more forgiving era — and a more affluent one.
My parents believed that any kind of bachelor’s degree pretty much guaranteed your white-collar future, and that was a truth of their era. Thirty years ago, when I came along, it was already less of a reality; today, so much less than that. Still, the hangover from that conviction lingers. I went to California’s public universities as their golden age of nearly free and superb education was ending and got through college scrambling to the sound of doors shutting behind me. It was all part of the end of an egalitarian dream birthed and nurtured by the New Deal of the 1930s, the creation of social security in the 1940s, and the Great Society programs of the 1960s. It’s now popular to say that, as president, Richard Nixon was to the left of Barack Obama, but what that means is that our society was then closer to a social democracy (and that since we’re really bad at talking about it, we’d rather focus our attention on figureheads).
Maybe communism was good for us after all, at least — as David Graeber argues — in scaring the powers that be into offering their own limited versions of equality and opportunity. California’s Proposition 13, enacted in 1978, was the beginning of the end of that dream, arising as it did from the now-entrenched belief that what we have separately beats whatever we have together anytime. Taxes were portrayed as the nails that stuck every breadwinning Jesus to his own personal cross, rather than the way to keep roads and bridges and schools in shape, have safe drinking water and, like, a postal system and libraries (and also a giant military eating up more than half of the federal government’s discretionary spending). As the retreat into the private sphere began in earnest, people started forgetting how good, how secure life had been, while Republicans launched the mantra that future tax cuts would be a magical ointment capable of curing anything.
Part of the great work of Occupy Wall Street was to make some of the brutality of the current economy visible. People whose lives were being ravaged by housing, medical, and educational debt came out of the shame and the shadows to testify, while activists and homeowners took action against foreclosures and banks. From the beginning Astra Taylor, author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, was part of that movement and moment. Her work there led to her involvement with Strike Debt and the fledgling Debt Collective. Now, she and Hannah Appel focus on the conditions that produced the perfect educational storm in the form of the private for-profit university/corporation. Rebecca Solnit
Imagine corporations that intentionally target low-income single mothers as ideal customers. Imagine that these same companies claim to sell tickets to the American dream — gainful employment, the chance for a middle class life. Imagine that the fine print on these tickets, once purchased, reveals them to be little more than debt contracts, profitable to the corporation’s investors, but disastrous for its customers. And imagine that these corporations receive tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to do this dirty work. Now, know that these corporations actually exist and are universities.
Over the last three decades, the price of a year of college has increased by more than 1,200%. In the past, American higher education has always been associated with upward mobility, but with student loan debt quadrupling between 2003 and 2013, it’s time to ask whether education alone can really move people up the class ladder. This is a question of obvious relevance for low-income students and students of color.