YDS National Organizer, David Duhalde's Speech at Bowdoin College about student debt. The talk was titled "Education is a Right - Not a Privilege." Forum also featured Rebecca Thompson, Legislative Coordinator for USSA and Alec Mayburduk, field director for League of Young Voters/Opportunity Maine.
We have reached the student debt crisis by no accident. There is no conspiracy or well-hidden plot. There has been a continued and open attack on public institutions, especially education, by the right-wing over the past three decades. As part of the larger neo-liberal economic agenda, which embodies a capitalism emphasizing the deregulation of markets and destruction of any sense of common good, state funded learning became a prime target for cuts. But the assault on education by American conservatives is rooted just as much in political ideology as economic beliefs. While visiting the Campus Progress website I came across an interview with conservative comedian Ben Stein. While Mr. Stein acknowledged that student debt was a burden, he openly opposed more state funding for education. His opinion was that a working class person shouldn’t be subsidizing someone’s dance class. This is a dangerous and dismissive attitude: one that categorizes higher education not as a source of educated citizenry, but as an institution of impractical knowledge.
Ben Stein’s statement is not unique. We can trace such opinions on education back to Ronald Reagan. As governor of California, Reagan was quoted as saying that state should not subsidize intellectual curiosity. He viewed education as solely a vehicle for job training. His statement was also an attack on the Left. There was a strong conservative backlash to the progressive students and radical faculty in the University of California system. Limiting access to education and under funding the school system would enable the right-wing to prevent the Left from dominating campuses and curb the Left’s societal influence.
There is another important, maybe even unplanned, consequence of the dramatic increase in the costs of education on the progressive movement. When working-class and poor students could still obtain decent, free secondary education, they had more freedom to choose their profession afterwards because they would not have substantial student debt. Many could go into public service. This clearly is no longer the case. Students not only can ill afford to go into underpaid social justice and movement jobs after graduation, they can hardly partake in the movement while at school. Many of us have friends who would love to come to meetings, rallies, and pickets but simply can not. They have to work to pay their school bills both during and after college. The cost of education not only affects the numbers of participants in progressive activism, but reinforces homogeneity in the social justice workforce afterwards. If only the privileged few can work fulltime for social change, then the movement becomes a mirror for the inequality it’s trying to fight against.
Then, when we talk about the crisis of student debt, in many ways we are talking about a crisis in American democracy. Education has long been viewed as a means to ensure we have a stable democratic republic. The better educated the citizenry, the better the voter. There is a critical point connecting this discussion of student debt and higher education to democracy. Before we begin as undergraduates, we operate in a world of rules, repetition, and regurgitation in high school. Once we reach college, it becomes one of the first time’s in which we are intellectually pushed to think for ourselves and encouraged to debate others. Democratic socialists value this freedom in education as the bedrock of any better society. For us, education is about giving citizens a greater understanding so they can be better democratic participants in society. Unlike capitalists, we want general education to be more than about future employment. It should also be about making people sophisticated and nuanced. Education also provides a livable alternative to the corporate wage-system. We want people to work in education for the intellectual common good, not business interests.
The attack on public education, however, is not just politically motivated. There is a great deal of profit to be made in the loan profession. My mother, an employee of an Ivy League university, recently avoided being part of the student loan scandal. Despite pressure to put a certain lender on her program’s website, my mother followed her gut instinct and did not. She told me, even before the scandal was in the news, she knew there was a conflict of interest and that it was inappropriate to put such information online. What transpired later was that student loan companies were illegally wining and dining university financial aid officers around the country. Nation-wide, people who were suppose to be securing the best deals for students were actual doing that for themselves.
We see that the student debt crisis is so problematic because it is a nasty mixture of different systems. You have the ideological commitment of some to undermine publicly financed education. They believe public funds should not be spent supporting intellectual curiosity. Others, neo-liberals who want to privatize anything that’s publicly owned or maintained for the common good, want to make sure the education is a for-profit industry. This economic ideology is later twisted into crony capitalism. A sincere belief in free market competition, whether one agrees with it or not, is perverted into a crony usury system of lenders and their lackeys.
When looking at how far we have regressed, it is important to look at some of the facts. In the 1970s, a student’s financial aid packet was 70% grants and 30% loans. In 2006, those numbers had reversed. To reach the purchasing power of Pell Grants from 1975-76, we would need to raise them from $4,310 to $9,083 dollars. Even these changes, as reformist as they would be, would require a massive movement just influencing electoral politics. While we do have some great allies in Congress, we also have a few representatives for whom students’ interests are not at the top of their list. That is why the work of great folks at United States Students Associationand Opportunity Maine are so critical. They are working with different people to get the right legislation passed and wrong legislation defeated. What they do is indispensable.
The role of democratic socialists in this movement is different, but just as important. We are public educators. It is true that we have to combat the crisis of student debt through activism such as legislative lobbying. However, it is also critical to put this debate into context. You can not fully explain what’s wrong with the current situation facing students without presenting a critique of capitalism and the right-wing. To be fully ready to take part in the anti-debt movement requires a sophisticated understanding of how and why education has been so undermined in this country. Democratic socialism brings that analysis.
The work of democratic socialists and our allies often intersects, and usually for similar reasons. Every speaker today believes in the need for strong student movements; movements defined by students mobilized in mass to exert power and win demands from governing institutions. Where democratic socialist politics are often the strongest, student movements are often the largest and most influential. The reverse is also true, especially in the United States. One of the saddest moments of my freshman year at Bowdoin College was hearing a member of student government say “I joined this to help sell t-shirts, not make political decisions.” We need to break this self-imposed disempowerment among students now.
We can not underestimate the role we have with our peers. All of you should take the information you learned here and distribute it among your classmates and friends. Most people know their peers are in debt. Likewise, many understand that this is a multi-billion dollar industry. However, most people do not understand that this does not have to be. There is an alternative out there existing throughout much of the industrialized world. As activists we have to use our understanding of the domestic, but we must also articulate our knowledge of the international.
One of the first steps towards my becoming a socialist was learning in the fourth grade that higher education in Sweden was free. Where democratic socialist and social democratic movements have been the strongest, public assistance to education is also the highest. The reason for this is that socialists view education as a common good; a commodity that should not be determined by the market. So when you talk about ensuring that everyone has equal access to college; that tuition should be affordable, and education is about more than job training, you are talking about concepts that are basic socialist viewpoints.
So, yes, the ultimate answer to solving the student debt crisis is democratic control of education and massive public assistance to make it affordable and great. But, in the meantime there is a ton of great activities you can do to help ease the crisis under capitalism. The Young Democratic Socialists have put together a booklet filled with different campaigns people are working on and ideas for starting your own actions. Building publicity for the anti-debt movement and winning victories now, such as making FAFSA easier, are key to the long-term change we’d like to see. And we need to fight for these reforms with a vision. A movement is not built just for a few victories, but rather for long term social change. We need to make reforms in education today. Not because a few alterations will make perfection. But the change we make will open the door for the radical re-foundation our higher education system so desperately needs.