Colleges Run Debt Peonage Business


In early February I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Darron Collins, the newly installed president of College of the Atlantic. I was especially interested in this event because Darron is a friend and former student of mine.

Darron argued eloquently on behalf of the college’s distinctive mission, where education is interdisciplinary and students have a major role in curriculum design and educational policy. He also set an ambitious long-term goal of building an endowment that will allow the college to become tuition-free and thereby model a fundamentally different orientation to higher education.

A college education, at both private and public institutions, has become increasingly unaffordable over the last quarter century.

As Robert Reich writes: “starting in the 1980s, as in so many other areas of American life, we took a U-turn. Tuition at public universities began climbing. By 2005, it was more than 10% of median annual family income. Now it’s approaching 25% … high enough to discourage many qualified young people from attending.”

In a society now marked by Gilded Age inequalities, students increasingly become debt peons in order to survive. This circumstance affects career choices, political ideologies, and life styles.

In the last two decades up to a third of students at elite colleges and universities have gone into finance to make the big bucks that allow them to escape student debt peonage.

In the process they become further committed to the values of individual acquisitiveness so emphasized in that profession – as well as contributing to the financial instability that occasions so much insecurity—and acquisitiveness— by much of the rest of us. Each purchase makes sense for an individual, but creates new needs for everyone below. The very ability of the wealthy to continually ratchet up consumption in response to any social problem reduces their sensitivity to common problems and their willingness to contribute to common solution.

High levels of debt also subtly reshape the goals of higher education. Education is asked to do too much in one sense and too little in another. It is blamed for high rates of joblessness.

Some liberals imply that if most young men and women received a college degree, unemployment and economic inequality would decline.

Unfortunately, however, the evidence today suggests that lack of effective demand for goods and services, not the education of our workforce, accounts for the grave economic crisis.

With a cultural heritage that treats wealth as a sign of moral virtue, debt by implication becomes an indicator of sloth. Hence the debtor often feels under increased pressure to follow conventions. A progressive educator of an earlier era, John Dewey, was attentive to open- ended problem solving played in education.

Neuroscientists George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling argue: “Voting decisions are fundamentally taken on the basis of values and empathy.

“Policies and facts matter; they are, however, not absorbed in isolation but are moreover embedded in values. Politicians therefore need to communicate a value framework in which policies are embedded and add up to a coherent programme.”

Today, however, higher education is becoming increasingly out of the reach of even many middle class students. The very goals of education mutate in ways that make our future less sustainable and inviting. We will all be the losers if we cannot arrest these trends.

John Buell is author of Politics, Culture, and Religion in an Anxious Age.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2012

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