Student debt and the role of higher education

I attended a webinar last Friday on Student Debt and the Future of Higher Education, featuring very corporate-oriented conceptions of the roles and functions of higher education institutions. Three experts from three different institutions shared their takes: Arizona State University’s Director of Online Engagement Ara Austin, economist Bryan Caplan from George Mason, and information technology and marketing professor Mike Smith from Carnegie Mellon. From each of their professional vantage points, they ostensibly came to discuss student debt, though the primary focus of the conversation ended up being the current and future roles of higher education in America, in terms of the student population conceived as revenue streams. In this post, I summarize the discussion and dispute the underlying, unaddressed assumption that higher education must be run as a business.

A brief summary of the discussion

Dr. Austin discussed the need for universities to pivot away from the traditional, in-person, 15-week semester modality around which higher education revolves. At ASU, she reports, the pandemic pivot to online learning increased opportunities for students whose lives do not fit neatly into the semester schedule or in-person format. ASU saw a significant uptick in enrollment for learners taking courses while working, and especially women and students from racial minorities. Rather than cater only to the 18-22-year-old population, who may not have to juggle, for example: work, raising children, and taking care of sick parents, Dr. Austin proposes that universities can leverage the affordances of digital technologies to provide options for people with significant commitments outside of the classroom that butt up against the rigidity of a semester-based schedule and a set curriculum. Even for chemistry labs, which she herself taught, you can condense all of the labs for the semester into a brief period requiring on-campus presence. All of this is very appealing for corporations that decide to invest in employees’ education (e.g. in an MBA for someone on the short list to become a middle manager), without jeopardizing their availability, Dr. Austin explained. Decreases in state-level funding led Dr. Austin to forge relationships with various businesses, who struck deals to finance their employees’ degrees.

Diverging from the traditional rigidity of the university system can absolutely increase access to education. A friend of mine, a veteran K-12 Latin teacher-turned university Latin lecturer, enrolled in the University of Florida’s “distance” Classics PhD program, since she was juggling teaching and family commitments and could not put her life on hold to enroll in a traditional, full-time PhD program and all it entails. This format enables her to continue her life in New York and do the work to become a doctoral-level expert in the Classics. The “residency requirement” can be fulfilled via brief, two-week summer institutes, which are much easier to plan around than two, immutable 15-week blocks carved out of the year.

Dr. Smith also advocated for appropriate technological adoption to revolutionize the university model. He argued during this panel that digital technologies can provide cheaper access to cutting edge work for disadvantaged populations. As he articulated in his opinion piece for The Hill earlier this year: increased access to higher education means more customers, so you can cut your costs and therefore the customers get cheaper education. For both Dr. Austin and Dr. Smith, broad, equitable access to higher education is the main goal.

Dr. Caplan’s position rests on combatting “degree inflation”, i.e., that a bachelor’s degree has become so common that employers now expect it, even for positions that don’t require it. The knock-on effect is that people with capital can afford to get master’s degrees to become competitive on the job market, and people with only high school diplomas can’t compete at all. His proposed solution is to further limit access to higher education, which will force employers to rethink their hiring practices. To paraphrase a point he made during the panel: “Rich people can pay whatever for a college degree. If Harvard stopped giving out scholarships, they could keep raising the price and still fill all their admissions slots.”

Caplan also argued that most university courses don’t actually prepare students for the work they want to do. Generations of Americans have been herded into universities without a real desire to learn, but instead with the goal of getting a well-paying job, he argues. “Most students”, in his view, don’t care about the course content, they just want a degree that will get them a job. This results, in his estimation, in students who don’t actually learn anything from general education or core courses: they don’t show up, and if they do, they’re not engaging with the content, he generalizes. I’ve never been to one of his classes, but if Dr. Caplan went to his university’s teaching and learning center, he would see that there are ways of structuring classes to be more interactive and skills-focused than disengaging, one-directional lectures. For Caplan, it would be sufficient for people to learn appropriate skills on the job, as it would be more relevant and hands-on. Apparently, no one needs to learn anything that’s not immediately and directly relevant for their work productivity, as defined by whoever their employer is at the time.

So the three implied solutions to the student debt crisis are:

  1. Change the business model so we can attract both corporate money to fund specific degrees and individual, non-traditional learners who are trying to fund their own re-skilling for their desired career shifts.
  2. Leverage digital technology so we can get as many paying students as possible, which will allow us to decrease tuition costs.
  3. Make higher education less affordable, so businesses will be forced to stop demanding college degrees, then people won’t take out loans to go to university because they won’t need an institutional rubber stamp.

Against the “university-as-a-business” model

Although the ideologies of people like Dr. Caplan may be more explicit about their conceptualizations of universities as profit-driven businesses, the ideologies of people like Dr. Austin and Dr. Smith also fail to address the logical end of their higher-education funding schemes: people without personal capital will have thier educational opportunities tied to the whims of corporations. Ultimately, all three of their viewpoints build from the assumption that education must be organized as a paid service that turns a profit. The university-as-a-business model is inherently exclusionary and puts the responsibility of financing knowledge solely on the individual. In a capitalist society with individually-financed education, individuals with more wealth by definition have more access to education. We in America like the myth of “education as a great equalizer“: the idea that anyone can improve their material circumstances simply by “getting educated”, whether it be learning to code, going to trade school, or getting an undergraduate degree. But how can someone without enough capital to escape poverty find the money to pay for an education from an increasingly-expensive institution?

If you can’t personally finance your education, and your employer won’t pay for your training, you can take out student loans, of course. You may not have money now, but once you get that degree/license/skill, you’ll be swimming in money and can pay back the loan with interest–the implicit assumption being that education is a financial investment in a profitable skill. If you’re poor, forget about learning for personal enrichment or pleasure. Taking over from banks that exploited a gap in the market to siphon interest off of high-principal student loans, the US government started handing out loans like candy. As a result of the federal loan availability (and anti-intellectualism), state-level governments cut back funding to higher education, and universities raised tuition to cover operating expenses. Now relying on tuition dollars instead of direct state and federal funding, colleges and universities had to compete for enrollment.

We saw increased spending for campus amenities: a dean of students, campus sports complexes, private police forces, shuttles and buses, shiny dorms, health clinics, university-owned cafeterias, etc.. The “college experience” was the selling point, rather than education. From a university-as-a-business mindset, this vertical integration of the various income streams exploitable as “student life” makes perfect sense. If you own the housing, you can capture more of the student loan money as rent. If you own the cafeterias, you can capture more of the student loan money through mandatory “meal plans”. If you provide health services, you can skim some of the insurance money as well. If you can market your successful sports teams, you can also get licensing and ticket revenue from local communities. Some of these services simply make for pleasant, safe, healthy places to live. Universities became brands to market, targeting both the population wealthy enough to afford the experience on their own, and the population taking out exorbitant federal loans. Who wouldn’t want to live in a town where you only have to swipe your ID to get free (at point of use) transit, health care, three guaranteed meals per day, and access to cultural events like plays, art expositions, concerts, and football games? Universities have stepped in to provide services to exclusive student communities in areas where local, state, and federal government have failed to provide such services–but that’s another argument for another time.

Rather than integrate these services into their own business model, some university and college campuses simply exert a stranglehold on the economic activity of the small towns in which they are situated. The university draws a transient, seasonal population. When I went to a (pre-pandemic) conference that fell outside the academic calendar at the University of Rhode Island, the various, small businesses (e.g. the places I went to for lunch and dinner) ran on skeleton crews, since the majority of workers (and customers) were the undergrads who went home over break. The owner of one pizzeria admitted to me that she lost money during the “off-season”. In these college towns, the local economy ebbs and flows with the semester, and small businesses live and die by the steady influx of “traditional” college students. If students can rely solely on federal loan money for their general living expenses, the local economy is effectively subsidized by the federal government. Slumlords capture the local real estate market and run illegal apartments to exploit student demand for housing, often exceeding local occupancy codes and failing to upkeep properties, since the students are desperate enough for housing and loans can cover at least part of it. If the students need to work to cover skyrocketing costs of textbooks and rent, then they’re ripe for exploitation by area businesses–why bother unionizing or fighting for a higher wage when you’re just going to be working there for a few months?

While it might be profitable to sell the “college experience” and the university brand, the stated goals of these nominally “not-for-profit educational organizations” typically involve the generation and dissemination of knowledge. To his credit, Dr. Caplan recognizes this, and argues for the axing of the various non-educational services a university offers. Without all the frills, tuition costs could theoretically come down for students. This, he argues, would significantly cut the overhead costs of a university, stop attracting students who enroll for the experience, and attract only “serious” students primarily concerned with education. What’s wrong with that? The rest of the economy.

In their misguided cost-cutting measures, businesses have outsourced on-the-job training to various educational institutions, and simply assumes anyone with a college education is prepared to work in a given career. For physicians, educators, lawyers, and other professions that require extensive theoretical knowledge just to get in the door, this training model can work. For more intesive trades: plumbers, mechanics, welders, carpenters, bakers, chefs–specialized trade schools will give you the skills you need, not a 4-year university degree. For the hospitality industry? For spreadsheet farms? Coffee shops? A four-year degree isn’t immediately relevant to your work, but more employers now require one anyway. Some degrees, especially professional or trade degrees, are useful proxies for competency for certain careers, but the expectation of a bachelor’s degree as a minimum for other jobs has resulted in an “overeducated” workforce. But that’s only a problem if we consider the goal of education to be the efficient distribution of knowledge or training. Is a doctor who bakes her own bread “overeducated”? Is a barista who reads Vergil in the original Latin “overeducated”? If that doctor decided she would prefer to run a bakery instead of work in medicine, is her medical degree “wasted”? If that barista takes a job as a Latin teacher, is her knowledge of running a coffee shop “wasted”? Why should we place more value on knowledge and skills used professionally in exchange for money? Why shouldn’t we be enabled and encouraged to learn for the sake of learning, regardless of economic work-centric incentives?

Ultimately, the organization of our economy and our society dictate the value of certain knowledge. There is work to be done that can only be achieved through higher education. There is also work to be done that does not require higher education. There is work to be done that can be learned through on-the-job training (in either sort of career), either through minimal time or as protracted professional development opportunities. As long as the ability to afford the basic necessities of life are tied to the income potential of certain types of work, Capital alone decides what work pays workers well. American roads and bridges are in dire need of repair, but we spend more on new construction than we do on maintenance. Road maintenance costs money, and as long as businesses can ship goods using those routes, it doesn’t matter if the support beams of a bridge are in shambles, nothing gets done until it collapses.

In the education sector: we are in dire need of schoolteachers, but we don’t pay them a living wage, let alone commensurate with the education costs we’ve foisted on them. In addition to spending about $30k in loans on a teaching master’s degree from a state school (on top of my undergraduate loans), I had to take over $1000 worth of tests for state certification, which I of course had to finance on my own. I had to pay out of pocket for most of the continuing professional development that I was required to complete in order to keep my job. Add that to the lack of respect for schoolteachers, from both administrators and parents. It’s no wonder why people aren’t lining up to do a thankless job that pays poorly. But the government doesn’t step in to make sure teachers even have the supplies they need for their lessons, because the main purpose for K-12 schools isn’t really educating children: they’re essentially state-subsidized daycare centers because parents have to go to work.

If we organize our society around profit incentives, and we aren’t properly funding essential services at the societal level, then we are introducing inequality, microcosmically, for that service. Roman triumvir and arguably the richest man ever to exist, Crassus, amassed wealth through a fire brigade racket that exploited slave labor, a private real estate market, the prevalence of shoddy building practices, and the ubiquity of fires in the ancient city of Rome. Since Rome had no city- or empire-run fire department, Crassus would send a massive cohort of enslaved people as a fire brigade to respond to any fire. Rather than put out the fire immediately, Crassus would extort the property owner into selling the land on the cheap. If the owner refused to sell, Crassus would let the building burn to the ground. If the owner sold the land to Crassus, he would have his slave laborers put out the fire, and rebuild whatever burned. Crassus would then rent the property to the previous owner.

Today, we see fire departments as a public good: a necessary service that must be funded. We don’t have private fire companies vying for control of a market, exploiting vulnerable people whose livelihoods are at stake, anymore. The government stepped in and took over the training and employment of fire-fighters, because it’s better for society not to have buildings burn down. Likewise, it’s better for society to have a well-educated populace, and it’s better for society for people to be able to retrain into different disciplines as our societal needs shift. If you’ve worked 20 years in the coal industry, and you need to re-skill to become a solar technician, your only option currently is to take out loans or be wealthy enough to go back to school to complete new training. It’s either that, or have the government prop up an inefficient, dirty industry so people aren’t left destitute without “useful”, “employable” skills, as defined by Capital interests.

The gaps in the education sector left by our governments allow for private companies to come in and control the market, based on their bottom line rather than the dissemination (and/or generation) of knowledge. We get textbook megacorporations capturing the market and charging hundreds of dollars per textbook, extorting both students and K-12 institutions (as well as the professionals writing the textbooks!). We get testing companies capturing state certification pathways, so would-be teachers pay hundreds or thousands of dollars out of pocket for a privatized rubber stamps of approval–which, in my case, were required beyond being in an approved professional teaching degree program at a state institution. We get private schools and charter schools not only siphoning students away from the public school system, which funds districts based on enrollment, but also siphoning funds away from the state budget in the form of tuition vouchers. Private schools, often not beholden to state requirements, can cut things like special education programs to save money, making an equitable education impossible for students with different access needs.

If we as a society really value education, and value equality, then we need to make our government fund educational services. For me, the most compelling argument is that education enriches our personal lives, and everyone should be allowed to pursue any kind of learning they wish to pursue. Even if you only care about the effect on business or labor productivity: K-12 education alone is not sufficient for the skills required of a significant part of our workforce, whether it be teachers, doctors, bakers, train mechanics, civil engineers, or plumbers. If we restrict access to any kind of professional training programs behind any personal price tag, we are inherently locking out people who can’t afford to pay for schooling. Why can’t a hard-working person of any socio-economic background become a teacher, doctor, or lawyer unless they can pay tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Interest-accruing, federal loans are not enough (and neither are private lenders who are trying to bring back indentured servitude with “Income Share Agreements”). We’ve seen predatory for-profit “schools” pop up to take advantage of the loans, and, as I outlined above, even legitimate colleges and universities have expanded to take advantage of desperate students with federal loan backing. We now have a $1.8T debt bomb waiting to go off, holding back over 45 million American adults (about 1 in 6 American adults). Burdened by debt payments, millions of educated, hard-working individuals can’t afford to have children, or buy homes–and many can’t keep up with their mortgages or skyrocketing rent. The federal government already paid for the education, and can just forgive the debt, but we need to better fund higher education for all students moving forward, and we need to stop running schools like profit-driven businesses.

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