How About A New Deal for Higher Education?
Democrats want to cancel a portion of the nation's $1.7 trillion in student loans -- but where's the bigger political vision for higher education?
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One of the most practical arguments for socialism I know is that whenever the United States government proposes to help a specific group, howls of outrage emanate from those who are not receiving that benefit. So why not prioritize benefits and reforms that make life better for everyone? That way, you can deliver much-needed help to struggling poor and middle-income Americans, while rich folks get a little bump too.
Take higher education, for example. Yesterday President-elect Joe Biden called on Congress to put legislation on his desk that will forgive up to $10,000 of federal student loans for each borrower. It is important to remember that this falls well short of what the Democratic party’s left-wing wants: Elizabeth Warren has asked Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in loans by executive order, a move that is supported by minority leader Chuck Schumer. And neither proposal would cover the commercial student debt market, which is where the poorest borrowers must turn when they have maxed out family resources, tuition discounts, scholarships, and federal loans.
While any number of people who have already paid off their loans support this idea, predictably, it caused other Americans to go berserkers.
Forget that the $1.7 trillion in student debt has been a drag on our economy for some time: the “What about me?” crowd is hopping mad. As one article characterized it, if some people have had to “sacrifice and suffer” because of our poor choice as a nation to force students self-fund their development into productive citizens, everyone should have to. “So if the latest plan is to #CancelStudentDebt,” Trump supporter Nick Short of the conservative Claremont Institute tweeted on November 16, “does that mean those that have already paid off their student debt are given a reimbursement check?”
Conservative ideas about fairness always seem to involve creating enough suffering to go around. As with other crucial issues of economic security—health care, affordable insurance, comsumer protection, regulating financial institutions — conservatives and libertarians have never floated a serious plan to address the escalating cost of higher education and professional training, or the ways that such an expense narrows the possibilities for Americans to move into, or remain in, the middle class.
Their only plan is: don’t go to college if you can’t afford it. Perhaps cultivating the votes of white, non-college educated Americans has given them an idea: create-ever more under-educated people to reinforce their grip on their dwindling base.
The Republican Party continues to frame education as something that benefits the individual, not society. Hence, they must be individually punished: in December 2019, libertarian Republican Rand Paul produced a plan that would have allowed Americans to gut their 401(k) and IRA savings to pay off their students loans.
Rand could have named this legislation The Robbing Peter to Pay Paul Act. But in addition to being a vehicle for sucking Americans dry to recover money for banks, it doesn’t address the issue. Higher education is unaffordable, it is a national good, and it needs to be publicly subsidized.
Democrats need to get a grip on this too. Forgiving existing federal loan burdens is only a start. It does nothing to change a system in which too many students must borrow and work low-wage jobs to pay tuiotion, as well as remain housed, clothed, and fed, while they earn a degree. As I wrote back in early summer, when the Covid-19 shutdowns were causing college and university budgets to implode:
It is not possible for most to save enough for college, so they borrow; they cannot live on what they borrow, so they work. I teach teenagers who fall asleep after working a night shift at minimum wage. One undergraduate, who worked three gig jobs, was repeatedly absent and hungry. “I have never worked so hard and been so financially insecure,” that student said, ashamed and in tears….Under normal conditions, almost half of students are food insecure, and 22 percent are routinely hungry; 64 percent are housing insecure and 15 percent are homeless — almost 20 percent in California. My own university has a department called Student Support and Crisis Management. Funding food banks, emergency housing loans and subsidizing psychiatric and medical care is now part of where tuition goes on all campuses.
As Democrats move to address this issue, they will have to decide whether to test the fragile legislative possibilities of bipartisanship, or move forward with what the Biden administration can do without legislation: federal loans can be forgiven, either by executive order or by the Department of Education.
But what forgiveness does not do is address an ailing system in which students shoulder the burden of propping up our nation’s collegs and universities by mortgaging their own futures. That requires a bigger vision — and one which we have seen no hint of yet.
Claire Potter (@TenuredRadical) is co-executive editor of Public Seminar, Professor of History at The New School for Social Research, and author of Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).
Spring syllabus alert:
If you are teaching lesbian history in the spring or trying to teach your students how to assess any archive’s possibilities, you might want to take a look at an essay I rescued from Beyond Citation, a site that has, sadly, gone dark: “LGBTQ Archives at the Schlesinger and the Sophia Smith” is now published as a blog post on my own website.
What I’m reading:
Rebecca Solnit warns that validating Trump supporters’ view of the president is a “devil’s bargain” that risks “throwing other people under the bus—by disrespecting immigrants and queer people and feminists and their rights and views.” (Lithub, November 19, 2020)
For all of the hair-pulling and chest-beating among disappointed progressives, the 2020 election picture shows gains for underrepresented groups: according to Timothy R. Bussey, 1,006 LGBTQ candidates ran for office in the United States in 2020, a 41% increase over the 2018 midterms.” (The Conversation, November 4, 2020)
Katha Pollitt at The Nation: “For me, though, the hardest thing to reverse is something more nebulous and disturbing: the way Trump has corrupted our understanding of truth and facts and simple human decency.” (November 13, 2020)
“As I’m on my couch with my dog I can’t help but think of the Covid patients the last few days. The ones that stick out are those who still don’t believe the virus is real.” South Dakota nurse Jodi Doering describes patients critically ill with Covid-19 who still believe that the disease is a Democratic conspiracy to defeat Donald Trump. (November 14, 2020)