(Photo: Igal Koshevoy / Flickr)Over the last 40 years, higher education in the United States has been transformed into a commodity that produces automatons to serve big-finance capitalism, prevents campuses from being a source of societal transformation and creates modern indentured servants through debt slavery.
Today, there is over $1 trillion in college debt with graduates entering a job market that cannot fully employ them, resulting in rapidly rising defaults. In fact, while tuition has grown 72 percent since 2000, employment for graduates with bachelor degrees has declined by almost 15 percent over the same time period.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed on December 10, 1948, and ratified by the United States, declares that, “Everyone has the right to education” and declares higher education “shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” The purpose of education is broader than creating workers for big business; it is to “be directed to the full development of the human personality.”
Unfortunately, rather than treating education as a right, the United States has moved in the opposite direction to treat it as a commodity. As a result, education has become entangled with big finance. Author Danny Weil describes private for-profit educational institutions such as Phoenix University as behaving like a criminal cartel that target poor and working-class students who are eligible for federally insured student loans, writing: “They set up at welfare offices, hang out at laundromats in low-income neighborhoods, recruit at public housing units, and their ‘recruiters’ patrol the streets of distressed neighborhoods in automobiles or on foot, looking for vulnerable working-class bodies they can register for government cash.”
Once entangled in the debt trap, student debtors are kept there by big finance’s deceptive and dirty tricks. Accountant Lynn Petrovich described some of big finance’s tricks: holding payments made online for two to four business days, which adds thousands of dollars in interest paid by borrowers over the life of the loan; if there is more than one loan, the one with the lowest interest is paid off first while the other accumulates interest; and they tell people that they are delinquent when they aren’t so that they can charge penalties. Petrovich reported that in the last nine months, Sally Mae, which is a private corporation named SLM and is the largest student loan provider, had over a half billion in profits.
The debt trap also makes students and graduates insecure and easier to control. In the 1960s, college campuses were the source of unrest seeking equal rights for women and minorities, environmental protection, an end to the Vietnam War and transformation of the economy. People in power expressed concern. President Nixon’s education adviser, Roger Freeeman, urged in 1970 that, “We have to be selective about who we allow to go through higher education“ because “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat.”
In 1971, before being appointed to the Supreme Court, Lewis Powell wrote a confidential memo to the US Chamber of Commerce urging defense of free enterprise and noted, “a priority task of business – and organizations such as the Chamber – is to address the campus origin of this hostility.” He laid out a plan for big business to take control of the direction of the country. Regarding campuses, he highlighted the power business had over universities because they relied on “(i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business.”
“The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the [business] system,” wrote Powell.
What is to be done about it? The consensus of people we have talked to is that in the long run, education advocates need to seek free college education as a human right, not a privilege for the wealthy. More immediately, students and their supporters need to organize for a debt jubilee, and if ignored, organize debt strikes; adjunct professors need to organize to demand security; and government needs to increase funding for higher education.
They allied themselves with the Quebec student movement which successfully fought tuition increases. US student activists have adopted the color of the Quebec student movement, red, in their banners and symbols.
Other students are beginning to burn their loan papers in a “Burn the Bill” campaign which threatens to grow as more people learn the facts about abusive loans, predatory practices and high administrative overhead.
We doubt that Congress will respond in a meaningful way until the student movement grows and becomes even more assertive. As Sen. Durbin once said, “The bankers own the place.” Congress is another area where students are engaging this issue. The nonprofit higher education reform group Student Debt Crisis is promoting HR4170, The Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, which would be a partial step in solving the debt problem.
Student loans are one aspect of the predatory loan economy, which was the primary cause of the housing collapse and has resulted in massive credit card debt at usury rates. Students in Canada quickly learned that their tuition problems were part of a broader austerity environment of the finance-based capitalist economy. Many students in the US also recognize that their tuition and student debt crises are connected to the broader problems in the economy and government. Student activism is one more sign of a culture of resistance that is developing and threatening the abusive power structure.
Education, like health care and other public goods, is under attack in the neoliberal agenda that treats everything as a commodity. More people, including students, recognize that access to free, high-quality education is not only a human right that does not belong in the marketplace, but is also better for the economy and the society as a whole. The actions of students at Cooper Union and around the world are stimulating important discussions in communities about whether we are going to treat higher education as a right for all or a privilege for the wealthy few.
For more information, the Clearing the FOG Radio Show has covered this issue in two shows: