student loans and the future of availability of education

Over the course of my lifetime and doubtless prior, there’s been a push from the right to privatize everything in sight, to make everything the province of the individual rather than something we do as a group. Whether this is deregulating energy or cutting food stamps and programs like WIC, working against legislation to deal with global warming or pushing the costs of education, healthcare, and childcare onto individuals, it’s all about moving away from group solutions to letting each individual determine their own self-sufficient fate.

This all sounds good on paper in some ways, and it might work okay if everyone started from a genuinely level playing field and had access to the same resources and opportunities and was going to have the same needs and desires going forward. Maybe in that particular fantasyland everyone gets a pony, too, I’m not clear on that part. Here in reality, most wealth is inherited and the pretense of a level playing field creates a structure where the rich and powerful concentrate even more wealth and power. And they do, cutting everyone else’s wages and benefits while going on about how terrible the economy is and how everyone has to tighten their belts so that Megacorp can go on receiving record profits. They follow this up by demanding cuts in social programs, saying it’s not fair to ask them to subsidize other people’s lives and families while they spend what should have been someone else’s pension to buy a fifth house and another car for their teenager who crashed the first one.

This view of the world is working to create a future where there is a permanent underclass of people who are underemployed, unemployed, or unemployable, which ensures that they will be willing to work worse jobs for longer hours and less pay, fewer benefits, and fewer protections. It ensures a future where having children will be a financial burden and where having a medical problem will be a disaster, because there will be no help available when these things happen. It also ensures a future where education is increasingly the province of the wealthy, as the ruling class is working to create opportunities only for themselves and because the more educated the rest of us are, the more likely we are to resist their agendas and stand together in our own interests.

Education used to be totally the province of the wealthy. You didn’t go to school past a certain point if your parents couldn’t pay. This changed in the United States with James Conant, former president of Harvard University. Conant was all like Hey Harvard, we’re pretty awesome, right? But it would be even more awesome if we started taking students based on their academic merits rather than their social connections and their parents’ money. And he did, and now Harvard is known for academic excellence rather than just kids with rich parents who major in cocaine before taking over the family business. Other schools followed suit, and education started to be available to a wider range of people. Not wide enough, but wider than it was.

Having education be available to a wider range of people carries a lot of benefits. At a basic level, an educated populace is an informed populace. They are better able to tell when their leaders are screwing up or screwing them over and to act in their own interests. Literacy allowed people to read the news themselves instead of relying on someone to tell them, but now we need cultural literacy, the ability to understand contexts and trends and to separate out news from propaganda and to filter signal from noise, information from entertainment. Beyond daily living, a system where more people are educated means good things for our economy as a whole – more engineers, more scientists, more creative writers, lawyers, doctors, psychologists, policymakers, social workers, computer programmers, systems administrators, and teachers who bring more to the classroom for children and try to help them step up into their best futures rather than just turning out factory workers, call center employees, farm hands, cleaning staff, and other menial laborers who will live and die in poverty while the rich compile greater wealth and a greater divide between us and them.

It is easy to say that everyone should pay for their own education. It is easy to talk about scholarships. It is easy to talk about how people should be responsible for their student loans, which are essentially the only way to go to school for most of us.

It is not so easy to discuss the realities of access to education.

Paying out of pocket is difficult if your parents cannot do it.

Scholarships are wonderful for those that can get them, but they are not given out on the streetcorner. At the graduate level, there are some, mostly in the form of fellowships and teaching assistantships. At the professional level, they often do not exist because the loan companies have stepped in, and the school is dedicated to promoting promises of a future where all of their graduates do well and have the money to either live well or pay the banks back. Student loans are fairly horrific for undergraduates, but for graduate and professional school it’s common to finish in six figures of debt. Further, the rules about little things like truth in lending, full and accurate disclosure, and usury are suspended in this area – it is legal for banks to lie to students about how much they will be paying back, and short of becoming permanently disabled from working, there is no way to discharge this debt no matter how dire your financial circumstances.

Should the most prestigious schools be reserved for the wealthy and connected? I think not. I think that this is yet another effort to concentrate educational opportunities in the hands of the few. If the truly excellent work is only being done in a few schools and only the wealthy have access to them, then only the wealthy will have these opportunities and only they will go on to the best graduate and professional programs and from there to the best jobs, all the while insisting that this is somehow not a classist system that creates and recreates opportunities only for those who are already wealthy and powerful while excluding the rest of us.

And then, when the rest of us see good opportunities and want them to be distributed on the basis of something other than wealth, like academic excellence or whatever, the rich and their sycophants begin to scream about how we are too entitled, because entitlement is their new buzzword for wanting to force the rest of us further into penury, if not with student loans that further line banksters’ pockets, then with shitty call center jobs, medical bills, and the inability to own our own homes or afford children.

Does that call center job offer you a pension plan? Or is the owner talking about moving your job to Malaysia to cut costs?

I’d like to think we’re entitled to a better future than this.

We do better as a society if we educate everyone who wants it and is capable. Having parents with money seems like a pretty arbitrary way to select who gets educated. Further, to say that everyone can go but to require loans that are impossible to pay back is essentially to deny education to most of us.

But as with the mortgage crisis, and people who need assistance programs like WIC or TANF, or healthcare, the cry goes up: why should I pay for that?

Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it benefits you when your neighbors do better. Maybe it would be better to ask why you’re crying about helping your neighbors have decent lives when the federal government is bailing out billionaire companies who use the money for champagne, private jets, and extra bonuses for their millionaire boards of directors? Why not get mad that your money is being blown on a pointless war? This is especially bizarre coming from people who are in general in favor of education, who have used social services or support their existence, who need healthcare or know someone who does, who are on Social Security or will need it for retirement or just don’t want their mom moving in with them in a few years. Educating people helps build the kind of society I want to live in, a world where we build each other up instead of tearing each other down. Do you want education to be limited to the wealthy? Do you want your cardiologist to be the smartest science nerd in the class, or the kid with the richest parents? Do you want your lawyer to care about the pursuit of justice and understands the realities of your life, or just be someone whose parents insisted because everyone in the family goes to law school, darling?

Who do you want in positions of governance? More rich kids who have no idea what the average person’s life is like and what their concerns are, or people who care about the interests of the general population?

Do you want your kid’s teacher to teach to the test while trying to control 40 kids with various different educational and behavioral needs, turning out adults who would be well-suited to menial jobs that often don’t even exist here anymore, or do you want them to be excited about education and working with kids and helping them step into their best futures?

Those best futures don’t stop at the end of high school. In order to really create that best future, we have to fund education at every level. I do not want to pay for wars and nuclear weapons and private jets and bailouts for banksters, but I’d be thrilled to live in a world where it was generally accepted that education was available without regard to economic class.

So yeah, I think we should bail out student loanholders and dump money into the public schools and make college and grad school and professional school affordable, by which I mean as close to free as possible and with a particular focus on getting educational opportunities for the middle and working classes. I think it should be affordable to have children. I think we should have single payer healthcare. I think we should look out for those among us who are most vulnerable and try to raise everyone’s standard of living. I think we should put our money into building a better world for all of us. I think this is how to do it, and that we will all have better lives if we do. I want a future where we build each other up instead of tearing each other down. I want a future where we understand our interdependence and need for mutual aid. I want a future where everyone has a good life, instead of the rich and powerful setting the rest of us to fight each other for scraps and their amusement while they drink champagne.

We can have this.

But first, we need to stop sniping at each other about entitlement. Turning basic rights that everyone should have into privileges that only the wealthy can afford is the wrong way to go. “Why should you get that?” is the wrong question. The right question is “How do we make sure everyone gets that?”

The first step in ensuring that everyone gets a good life is to recognize that we are all entitled to it, and that we can collectively have a lot more if we work together than if we privatize everything and turn essential rights for everyone into privileges that only the few can pay for.

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