In the wake of student protests against rising tuition costs at Cooper Union and the University of California at Berkeley, student debt has once again entered the national conversation.
I recently sat down with the 2012 Libertarian vice-presidential nominee, Judge Jim Gray, to discuss student debt, among various other issues. When asked about provocative comparisons between student debt and indentured servitude drawn by another third-party candidate, Jill Stein, Gray had this to say:
“I think that you and I are in the privileged class, to be able to go to college,” Gray said. “Many people around the country have not been so blessed for one reason or another, and so they are paying their taxes … I don’t feel that they should be paying taxes for us to go to college. I would get the federal government out of this completely. That’s the reason, by the way, why tuition has gone up so much. You have a third-party payer, just like in health care. What happens when you have a third party payer? The prices go up. That’s true in health care and that’s certainly true with regards to your tuition.”
Although I support Judge Gray’s argument that the federal government has, in part, been encouraging the student debt, I don’t think that education should be something reserved for the privileged class, especially because it is an economic necessity in the job market. This sort of thinking reinforces class conflict. If we take a historical power analysis to student debt, we begin to see how it has become a form of entrapment.
NYU Social and Cultural Analysis professor Andrew Ross recently commented on this issue at an Occupy Washington Square event:
“Debt renders impossible many of our political aspirations,” Ross explained. “In this country, debt historically has been promoted as a way of suppressing the radical potential of an active citizenry. Historically, home ownership and all the debtorship that it entails was promoted in the 1920s and 1930s as a way of staving off socialism. More recently, student debt has served a similar purpose.”
Indeed, I do not think any of this is merely by accident or coincidence. It’s a way to wield power and silence our voices. The radical student demonstrations of the 1960s proved to be dangerous to those in power. As a backlash against the democratizing forces of the 1960s, tuition has been continuously increasing at both private and public universities, but especially at the private. As Professor Ross points out, student debt has become the primary method of funding education, whereas it used to be only one of various means.
The issue of student debt is very appropriate for NYU, which has the highest rate of student debt in the nation. Many students at NYU and elsewhere graduate and spend the rest of their working lives paying off their debt. This debt becomes an unjustifiable burden. The more in debt we are, the more powerless and complacent we feel in our schools and in the wider political system.
The problems are exacerbated by the limited role students have in schools’ decision-making processes, and often these decisions concern tuition. So students at NYU and colleges across the country can only be reactive, at least when it comes to administrative decisions. They don’t get to help make the really important decisions; they are simply informed of them later.
One could respond by saying that it isn’t necessarily the students’ place to make important decisions, that they sometimes lack certain specialized knowledge. I tend to lean towards the more radical side; I think we students could organize and, over time, form lasting participatory, assembly-like structures where we can debate these issues. However, even the faculty is increasingly shut out of important institutional decisions. That is just one of the consequences of the corporatization of the American university.
Thus, the specific student-university tension, or the powerlessness the former feels relative to the latter, is actually a more general tension between those who think of the university in mostly academic terms and those who think of it in mostly financial terms. American universities are undermining themselves from within when they act like businesses; they are losing what made them great institutions in the first place.
Perhaps if students and faculty at NYU and other universities consistently push back against those who are financially minded, something exciting can happen.
Edward Radzivilovskiy is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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