Generation Debt

Generation Debt

Education is a human right. Anyone willing and able should be able to attend an institution of higher education irrespective of their ability to pay for it.

Student debt action at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, March 2014 (Light Brigading / Flickr)
This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” Click to read contending arguments from Matt Bruenig and Tressie McMillan Cottom.

The political battle over higher education is everywhere. As Republican state governors push to dismantle their state school systems, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have proposed using federal dollars to expand debt-free higher education. Across the globe, from Canada to England to Australia to Chile, students have bravely confronted police violence as they fight against the defunding and privatization of higher education.

Achieving debt-free public higher education is an important goal for society as a whole and the left in particular. Education is a human right, and anyone who is willing and able should be able to attend an institution of higher education irrespective of their ability to pay for it. Public disinvestment in education needs to be challenged, because changing the very nature of higher education and exacerbating inequality even further is more than a budgetary matter.

Education is a right that the government must grant. Higher education, then, shouldn’t be left to a handful of private schools, where administrators pursue their own objectives independent of public need, or to the market, which is only interested in how much it can profit at any given time. The point of public higher education is to collapse precisely this distance between elite and mass education, by ensuring better access and higher quality that would never otherwise be available on a large scale.

Higher education also provides one of the last spaces for young people not shaped solely by market values. The American liberal arts model is unique in that it allows for experimentation, learning, and community-building. Attacks on higher education haven’t simply been about raising tuition but about dismantling this model itself. A notable example is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent attempt to remove phrases such as “improve the human condition,” “the search for truth,” and “public service” from the state university’s mission, reorienting it simply toward the needs of business.

State disinvestment not only forces schools to cater to the demands of corporations and philanthropists in order to receive funding but also orients public higher education toward the needs of rich students. As public support dries up, schools are increasingly forced to compete for rich students who can afford to pay high tuition. Campus life then becomes organized around a consumerist model that is more likely to meet their needs, and becomes less about fostering relationships and opportunities among the broader student body. This is a huge problem for poorer, aspiring students for whom college-age networking is just as important to future mobility as their grades.

National conversations on higher education are often dominated by a few elite schools, so they ignore the promise of mobility offered by the state systems, which educate some 70 percent of students. Community colleges are open to all and, for those who succeed, present the opportunity to transfer to state schools and advance through the education system to a bachelor’s degree. This internal mobility is one of the first things to buckle with defunding, as classes are cut in community and state colleges, while flagship schools focus on the rich rather than on those within their system.

This isn’t an esoteric issue. Over 20 million students will attend an institution of higher learning this year, and 63 percent of people in their late twenties will have completed at least some college. And yet a 2015 poll found that even self-identified middle-class people thought “being able to pay for their children’s college education” was the least realistic possibility in their economic future, below receiving regular pay raises and having job security.

Student debt has taken the place of public funding, and it is has become a slow-moving disaster. Seventy percent of graduates have student debt, with an average debt load of over $25,000 for those who graduate from public colleges. Student debt also exacerbates already existing wealth inequality. Black students disproportionately rely on student loans for college access; according to the Urban Institute, 42 percent of African Americans ages twenty-five to fifty-five have student loans, compared to 28 percent of whites. Black families carry a student loan debt that is 28 percent higher than that of white families.

Rather than simply being another bill to pay, student debt is reworking the lives of those who bear it. Student debt has grown faster than our ability to measure and understand it, but studies already find that student debt leads graduates to delay marriage, invest in a home, or start a business. In order to manage these debt burdens, students have been drawing out their student loan payments over an even longer period of time, from an average of 7.4 years in 1992 to 13.4 years today. Only the elite avoid this burden. According to the Federal Reserve, those in the bottom 95 percent of households have seen their student-debt-to-income ratio skyrocket since 1995. This is especially true for those in the bottom 50 percent, whose education debt has more than doubled—from 26 percent of yearly income to 58 percent.

Research also shows that the burden of student debt reduces people’s ability to take lower-paying jobs dedicated to the public interest, and instead pushes them toward higher-paying occupations—which contributes to the devaluation of already precarious jobs in care work and public service. Many remember the “We Are the 99 Percent” slogan from the height of Occupy, during which student debt was highlighted as one of the leading obstacles to economic security, especially for those wanting to work caring for others.


There’s also no simple fix to this situation. Some hope that we can redistribute our way out of the problem by allowing public colleges to charge a high “sticker price” but reduce tuition for those most in need. Yet states such as North Carolina, Iowa, Arizona, and Virginia are already limiting the ability of colleges to do this, arguing that a high “sticker price” unfairly burdens middle-class people. Commodifying education and means-testing financial support only exacerbates class antagonism among students.

Others, following Milton Friedman’s arguments, suggest allowing students to sell future equity in themselves by paying a percentage of their income for a set number of years after they start earning. This is designed to create adverse selection, as those students who predict they will be high earners will simply opt out and pay their tuition up front or with fixed student loans. Worse, as only public institutions adopt this policy, it will encourage those who can or who want to opt out to choose private schools, segregating those who must mortgage their futures into second-tier options.

Others will argue that focusing on free higher education is regressive and benefits the privileged at the expense the poor. But we should always consider the overall progressiveness of an economy, not each individual part. It’s telling that public disinvestment in the states has been paired with generous tax cuts for rich individuals and corporations. Worse yet, the for-profit schools that have been filling in the gaps have saddled many poor people with lifelong debts they will be unable to repay. According to the Institute for College Access & Success, graduates of four-year for-profit schools have an average of $39,950 in debt, 43 percent more than those who attend nonprofit schools. This is a predatory minefield that students with more resources or the “right” background and connections can entirely avoid when navigating the world of higher education.

We’ve seen examples of where this defunding and privatization process ends—most notably in Chile, as writer Lili Loofbourow has documented. Viewing higher education as a luxury, Augusto Pinochet set about dismantling public education and transferring its role to the private sector immediately after his 1973 coup. The result was a system that was far more unequal, expensive, and class-based than anything that came before. After decades of struggle, progressives in Chile may be on the verge of fixing this; the United States, however, is moving steadily in the opposite direction.

Looking back at the pre-Reagan era, we can all too easily become nostalgic. The achievements of the postwar U.S. higher education system, like all successes everywhere, were fragile and compromised. But there is a genuine value in mass higher education that we should build on, not discard. Political scientist Suzanne Mettler found that, along with their several additional years of education, beneficiaries of the GI Bill “enjoyed more frequent and greater leaps of social mobility than nonbeneficiaries.” Opportunities opened up for generations of working-class people to develop their lives more fully and move into the middle class on secure terms. This extended to the next generation, as the number of students expanded rapidly throughout the 1960s and ’70s. This door would never have been opened if higher education had not been expanded the way it was. This is an achievement that is worth defending.

Mike Konczal is a contributing editor at Dissent.

This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” Click to read contending arguments from Matt Bruenig and Tressie McMillan Cottom.