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Meanwhile, conservatives have come to distrust higher education at unprecedented rates — they see it as increasingly beholden to the idiosyncratic orthodoxies of the cultural left. Issues surrounding speech, race, and gender are especially contentious and have become fodder for the Trump campaign.
With the 2020 election approaching, amid a pandemic that shows no signs of abating, we reached out to scholars and academic leaders from across the political spectrum to ask: What’s at stake for higher education in the election?
Here’s what they told us.
The Higher-Ed Doom Loop
We need to be more open to real debate.
By Patrick J. Deneen
Regardless of the outcome of November’s election, higher education will become buffeted more than ever by winds from Washington, D.C. Under one electoral outcome, these winds will be greeted as a refreshing breeze; in another, as a violent hurricane. In either case, the effects on higher education will be transformative, the outcomes baleful.
Some of our fiercest political battles are now pitched on the otherwise picturesque campuses of our nation’s universities. Over the past several decades, universities have become bastions of progressive political commitments, with conservative representation among the faculty shrinking to the point of nonexistence. On these campuses, conservative viewpoints are increasingly viewed as illegitimate, with conservative speakers (often invited by student groups) disinvited or shouted off the stage. Some, such as Charles Murray, have been met not only with protest, but violence.
As a result, the American people’s views of universities have been colored by highly partisan lenses. According to a 2019 Pew Research poll, 18 percent of Democratic-leaning respondents believed that universities had a negative effect on the U.S., while 59 percent of Republican-leaning respondents held this view. Universities went from having 67 percent and 53 percent support by these respective respondents in 2012, to 67 percent and 33 percent over that same time frame.
Thus, for conservatives, or roughly half the nation, universities are increasingly seen as fortified camps of the opposition. That view has been reinforced by the public appearance of critical race theory that has exploded in the nation’s streets (as well as in its boardrooms), learned by many protestors on college campuses. Lessons about systemic racism are now being translated into “mostly peaceful protests” that have often turned violent, and the tearing down or removal of statues not only of Confederate soldiers, but figures such as Ulysses S. Grant, St. Junípero Serra, and Theodore Roosevelt. While progressives praise such removals, renamings, and reinterpretations as necessary precursors to a more egalitarian society, conservatives regard these actions as puritanical efforts to destroy memorials to imperfect humans who nevertheless exemplified certain virtues worthy of admiration and emulation. A radical divide has opened in how people view higher education’s role in the future of American society.
If Joe Biden wins the election, we can expect his administration not only to reverse many of the executive orders and directives that had been issued under the Trump administration, but to increase support and even require increased programming related to “diversity and inclusion” and, broadly, identity politics. This change will be celebrated on campuses, but its effect will be to further politicize campuses, and — with near certainty — increase opposition and disapproval by conservative voters and their political representatives. Universities will be seen more than ever as an organ of one political party, and — should there be an eventual change in party control, which history suggests will occur at some point — they will find themselves under immediate and direct political threat.
Indeed, this is what to expect in a much more focused and disciplined form if Trump wins re-election. While he has been reviled on college campuses, his administration has exercised scant focus on forcing change on campus culture from above. This has begun to change late in his administration, most notably in recent efforts to defund critical race theory training sessions in the federal government itself and, by extension, any organization using direct federal funding. Under a second Trump term — in which there will likely be a purge of internal bureaucratic opposition — expect focused and aggressive efforts to use the lever of federal funding both to weaken or even eliminate various progressive academic approaches and programs, while potentially requiring more conservative alternatives, such as the hortatory teaching of American history. Indeed, I would expect that there would be a move away from federal funding of liberal-arts colleges and humanities programs altogether, in favor of STEM programs and support for new endeavors to educate in trades and work-based apprenticeships.
I view either outcome as lamentable. The best course would be for those of us living and working at universities — who would, I hope, agree that it is best not to be a weathervane of the federal government — to make ourselves less reviled or viewed as a partisan operation by opening ourselves to legitimate debates and increasing the presence of faculty and students of genuinely different perspectives and views. We might play a role in moderating and even healing the division that now mars our nation, and engaging in the work of inquiry and exploration to which we should be mutually dedicated.
Patrick J. Deneen is a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.
What’s at Stake? Everything.
By Harvey J. Kaye
If Donald Trump wins re-election and the Republicans continue to hold the Senate, the class and culture wars of the past 45 years, the authoritarian initiatives of the past four years, and the tragic deaths and devastation wrought by the pandemic will intensify, alongside the further corporatization and corruption of higher education.
Memory is short, even in educational circles. So let’s recall that in the wake of the democratic surge of the long 1960s, the nation’s economic and political elites made it clear that they had had enough of the costs brought on by environmental, consumer, and labor activism and the demands of women, minorities, and poor people for social and economic improvement, of the disturbances of student protests and the arguments of the liberal media and the “value-oriented intellectuals” of the professoriate.
As the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington presented it on the elites’ behalf in The Crisis of Democracy (NYU Press, 1975), there was an “excess of democracy” — a “democratic distemper.” Thus commenced the campaigns by corporate bosses and their conservative and neoliberal political allies in both major parties to not only subdue the distemper, but also undo the democratic political, economic, and cultural achievements of generations.
The result has been a new plutocratic Gilded Age.
Consider not just skyrocketing student debt, but also the reduced public commitment to state universities; the creation of profit-making online universities; research agendas dictated by corporate priorities; repeated right-wing assaults on the humanities and social sciences; and conservative endeavors to legislatively control university curricula and to both suppress students’ abilities to vote and restrict their right to protest.
Forty-five years of experience should tell you what’s at stake if we get four more years of Make America Great Again.
Harvey J. Kaye, a professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, is the author most recently of FDR on Democracy (Skyhorse Publishing).
The Future Is at Stake
Trump waged war on international students. If he wins, we all lose.
By Nathalie Rita and Nandita Sharma
The fall semester has started with unprecedented challenges. Many campuses that opted to hold in-person courses have seen outbreaks; others have reconsidered their instructional plans. Amid this chaos, the plight of international students has been largely overshadowed.
On July 6, the Department of Homeland Security sent shockwaves throughout higher education by ending the policy that permitted international students to take fully online course loads while residing in the United States. Amid the chaos that followed, the Trump administration backed away from its decision, and media coverage moved on.
Yet for many international students, the nightmare is far from over. The latest government directive permits current international students to take courses entirely online while living in the U.S., but only covers the fall 2020 term. However, students starting a new degree program are not permitted to enter or reside in the United States if their coursework is fully online.
The result has been predictably painful. “International undergraduate enrollments are down 11 percent,” reports the National Student Clearinghouse in its first look at fall enrollment. However, because international students pay disproportionately high rates of tuition, the financial cost to college likely outstrips the substantial percentage declines.
The toll on international students is, of course, the most intense. Many depend on campus jobs because visa regulations often limit employment opportunities outside the university. The loss of a campus job can lead to immediate financial difficulties.
Finally, and relatedly, is the cost of all this unpredictability. A vague threat of deportation looms. “Every international student lives in such precarity knowing that any mistake, even as little as jaywalking, can jeopardize their future,” says the University of Hawaii-Manoa’s Morsaline Mojid.
Jessica Sarles-Dinsick, associate dean for international programs and special projects at Columbia University, expects 30 percent to 40 percent of international students might not come to the U.S. this academic year. The Trump administration seems intent on ensuring such an outcome, using Covid-19 as a cudgel against pluralism and internationalism. Universities are on the front lines.
For international students and for colleges, the future is at stake this November. The re-election of Donald Trump may be the death knell for a globally focused university system in the United States.
Nathalie Rita is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. Nandita Sharma is a professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.
Critical Inquiry Is on the Ballot
We’ve all contributed to an inhospitable intellectual climate.
By Jonathan Holloway
It would be easy to look at political discourse in America and to declare the end of days. Our reliance on social-media shorthand, bombast, and diatribe has led to the types of headlines that are now familiar: “Intellectual curiosity is dead!” “Academic rigor is consigned to the dustbin!” “Scholarship and citizenship are now at war!”
Indeed, intellectual curiosity in this campaign season seems stifled, inconvenient facts are freely ignored, and volume has become an acceptable substitute for truth. Cynicism frequently replaces honest scrutiny, open-mindedness is seen as a lack of commitment, and all but the most strident positions, on the left and the right, are deemed weak and vacuous.
The more that voters embrace these campaign-season norms as acceptable civic behavior, the more serious is the threat to independent and rigorous scholarship and the values that such scholarship undergirds.
The existential threat is that the political and intellectual climate will grow even more inhospitable to critical inquiry. That threat is made more real wherever we choose not to question our own ideas and those of others. The threat is amplified whenever we turn to media echo chambers for validation, and grows more menacing whenever we eschew nuance in favor of black and white choices.
It is a hard thing to say, but we have all played a part in making this threat real. Now we must clean up this mess. We need to emerge from this election, regardless of its outcome, with a commitment to demonstrate that universities are simultaneously the keepers of society’s great ideas and where those ideas can, and must, be debated — perhaps to be debunked, perhaps to be strengthened, made to ring more true.
The threat to scholarship is real, and while I am by nature and practice an optimist, I am not so naïve as to believe that our social and political systems will magically self-correct. If we can find in this moment the grace and patience that are needed to think freely and rigorously while treating others with the respect and dignity that they deserve, there is a chance that we can envision, and realize, a better day.
Jonathan Holloway is the president of Rutgers University.
A New Deal for Higher Education
Public investment, debt cancellation, and reparations are possible.
By Adom Getachew
Higher education is in a bad way. Student debt is astronomical; a majority of faculty members are denied the most basic measures of a living wage, benefits, and job security; and whatever public admiration colleges once enjoyed has been whittled away as higher education becomes a private good.
Some of us, in the lead up to the election, are pushing an alternative vision of higher education. Over the past few months, over 6,500 of us, along with over 30 unions and professional organizations, have called for a federal stimulus to help our industry. We are demanding lower tuition costs, the institution of debt relief, extensions of Ph.D. funding, the conversion of contingent teaching positions into full-time, long-term employment, and the retention of all staff and service workers. The American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors have decided to take on this platform as part of a national campaign for a New Deal for Higher Education with the aim of strengthening public investment in higher ed in state legislatures and Congress.
In collaboration with the Justice Democrats, the Sunrise Movement, Action Center on Race and the Economy and 16 other groups,
the Debt Collective — an organization that emerged from Occupy Wall Street — issued a public letter calling on Joe Biden to commit to eliminating all student debt, designating an assistant secretary of education to oversee existing regulations designed to protect students and their families from predatory loans, and designating another assistant secretary to examine and address the role of student debt in exacerbating racial inequality.
Finally, the summer uprisings against police violence have come to campuses. From the UC-system-wide Cops off Campus Campaign to #CareNotCops at University of Chicago, from Another Tufts is Possible to Black Students for Disarmament at Yale, the question of policing and its role on campuses has taken center stage as we approach the election. A national network of progressive faculty linking the university to wider social formations is urgently needed. For instance, in 2019, the Black-faculty led Scholars for Social Justice released a platform on reparations in higher education that examined the many roles universities play, from employer to investor. This summer, SSJ led focused webinars on campus policing and the intersection of racial capitalism and austerity in higher education.
These proposals — for public investment, debt cancellation, and reparations — would be transformative. And while progress on any of these fronts will depend on who occupies the White House and who holds majorities in state houses, city hall, and Congress come January, we should understand elections and electoral politics as creating the conditions of possibility rather than sealing the deal for meaningful change. The transformation of higher education has to be embedded in a wider social and political movement for equality and justice.
Adom Getachew is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago.
This Is Not a Drill
Our fundamental rights are at stake. Universities have a duty to act.
By Mitchell A. Orenstein
As President Trump encourages violence at polling stations and questions the legitimacy of the vote, higher education needs to develop a plan for what to do if the results of the election are challenged, overridden, or provoke civic unrest. This is not a drill. And colleges are no mere observers to democracy. Their functioning and business models depend on America being a democracy in which the free flow of information is a basic right. Academic freedom can only exist in a society that protects political freedom.
Consider Hungary, a country that, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has been transformed from a strong democracy into an autocracy. Over the past decade, he has consolidated his authority over parliament, undermined the courts, taken control of the media, fiddled with elections, and finally imposed his will on academe, shutting down a major university and closing departments for spreading “gender ideology.” It can happen here.
Waiting and watching is a bad strategy. If fundamental democratic rights are challenged during or after the election, universities have a duty to act — for themselves, yes, but also for the broader society. Higher education could play a leading role in defending democracy. College leaders could be among the first to stand up and demand respect for free elections. Colleges can educate the rest of the country about the dangers we face. They can also be a locus of collective action — if they get organized now.
All college presidents should think about how they will act if the results of the election are challenged. But we cannot rely on leaders alone. Urgent discussions should be taking place now in academic unions and student organizations. Will we need to organize teach-ins and mobilize people to head to state capitols or Washington, D.C.? Whatever the case, colleges should prepare for the possibility that the last day of regular fall instruction will not be Thanksgiving break, but November 3.
Mitchell A. Orenstein is a professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Second Reconstruction — and the Third
Rebranding is different from progress.
By N.D.B. Connolly
The election and re-election of Barack Obama did not bring about the kind of “Reconstruction” for which many Americans had hoped. We got backlash nonetheless. The past decade or so has been awash in anti-Black violence, ever-more-inventive voter suppression, and resurgent espousals of overt white supremacy. There’s a 19th-century, post-Reconstruction feel in the air.
To push the historical parallel a bit further, one finds the American university, as in the 19th century, party to the political theater presently staged on our streets and in our chambers of governance. And it remains unclear if higher education will have a genuinely progressive role to play.
In the decades that followed Reconstruction, America’s first research universities helped fashion a vision of modern, white knowledge that blanketed over the previous generation’s North/South fissures. Places like Stanford and Johns Hopkins cultivated the Anglo Atlantic gentleman scholar. They built entire academic disciplines that trivialized the contemporaneous political problems of Black and Native American self-determination. Under the banners of “objectivity” and “science,” they reified fables about savage backwardness and the imperial frontier.
In recent years, higher educators have been far more progressive, intrepid, and intellectually honest. We’ve seen the establishment of explicitly anti-colonial academic departments and the proliferation of scores of anti-racist programs and projects. Many of these initiatives, like the ones at Georgetown and Brown, grew from the modern university’s roots in slavery and dispossession.
But bravery ought not be confused with efficacy. If institutional anti-racism is what we’re after — if we hope for the university to be the birthing place of a new commitment to redressive politics and policy — then we need to avoid the snare that our current hour of anti-racism lays before us. We must not mistake rebranding with progress.
The first efforts to desegregate higher education, in the 1960s, didn’t just depend on courageous activists. They relied on aggressive federal oversight, what’s been called a “Second Reconstruction.” In 1969, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare seized $70 million from Columbia University for failing to advance aggressive affirmative action. The head of HEW’s civil-rights office at the time was Leon Panetta (yes, that Leon Panetta!), and when President Richard Nixon fired Panetta for too aggressively enforcing the Civil Rights Act, Time magazine headlined its coverage of the firing, the “End of Reconstruction.”
I read about this little-known fact in a Johns Hopkins University student newspaper from 1975. Hopkins feared, as did many universities, the same thing happening to them. Faced with the threat of financial seizure, scores of universities, including Columbia and Hopkins, made their first Black faculty hires and, for many, their first concrete breakthroughs in institutional anti-racism.
As was true during Reconstruction and the second Reconstruction, today’s anti-racism will only matter to the extent that universities demand a societywide return to robust compliance with federal antidiscrimination guidelines. The hopefulness of this moment is braided with potential backlash — against the 1860s and the 1960s.
We therefore need to restart Reconstruction, from the university outward, if necessary, election by election, generation by generation.
N.D.B. Connolly is an associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University, where he directs the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship.
Trump’s disregard for knowledge is strategic.
By Renata Salecl
Donald Trump’s presidency has shown from its start a disregard for science, knowledge, and truth: all that is at the core of academic life. He has placed ignorance on a pedestal. He has no shame about his lack of knowledge and no desire to learn. Trump’s re-election would lead to an even greater spread of ignorance, almost a permission for it.
Trump does not merely disregard facts; he is also of the opinion that he already possesses all necessary knowledge. He is a “very stable genius,” so why invest time in learning, studying, or even reading?
The pandemic shows the consequences of this ignorance. Trump ignored science from the start and has downplayed Covid-19; however, he also claimed that he has a natural capability for scientific understanding. This kind of reasoning follows from what I call the “Ikeaization of society”: Just as everyone is perceived to be capable of assembling Ikea furniture, everyone can acquire whatever expertise is needed, no matter how complex the problem in question. Knowledge is regarded as something one can come to without training; it is also perceived as a matter of personal choice. Online, a scientific study and an influencer’s opinion have equal power to shape opinion.
Trump makes ignorance strategic. His disregard for knowledge, and his lack of shame for his ignorance, appeases his followers for their own ignorance.
This maps onto Trump’s — and his followers’ — feelings about higher education. Trump admires the word “university.” After all, he calls his real-estate-training programs “Trump University.” The branding technique reflects his misperception of our sector as something gilded and prestigious and ignores its core mission and values.
This business was a scam, of course, and the courts awarded a $25-million settlement to the “students” of the “university.” There won’t be any parallel settlement for us.
Renata Salecl is a professor at the School of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London and a senior researcher at the Institute of Criminology at the Faculty of Law in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Her new book, A Passion for Ignorance: What We Choose Not to Know and Why, was published by Princeton University Press.
The Fight Is for Free College
Joe Biden’s plan would pay for itself.
By Anthony P. Carnevale
When Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, pundits declared free college dead. This November, Americans will, however, vote on a meaningful and industry-shaping proposal for free college. Joe Biden’s plan comes with some restrictions: While all community-college students would be eligible, students at four-year publics would need to be from families with annual incomes below $125,000 (roughly 80 percent of in-state undergraduate students at four-year publics would qualify). State governments would share the costs of this program, with the federal government contributing $2 for every $1 contributed by a state.
The time for such a proposal has come. America has always fared poorly in international educational assessments. We still do. But we always remained dominant economically. The American size advantage in international competition is fast disappearing, and central to reversing that trend is expanding access to higher education.
Already at least 15 states and 200 localities have created free-college plans, including some Republican-dominated areas. For example, in 2015, Tennessee enacted the Tennessee Promise, a free-community-college program for graduating high-school seniors that was later extended to adults returning to college.
Crucially, Biden’s plan is a “first dollar” plan that would allow students to use their financial aid, such as Pell Grants, to pay for other costs, such as room and board, books, and transportation. And while free college is not free, at least to taxpayers, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that Biden’s proposal will pay for itself within a decade.
The plan would cost $49.6 billion in its first year and another $683.1 billion over the subsequent 10 years. Still, the increased tax revenue it would generate from the better-educated, better-paid workers that would result make up for the spending. The Biden plan would increase college attainment enough to yield a total of $371.4 billion in additional federal and state tax revenue, along with private after-tax earnings gains of $866.7 billion, in the program’s first 11 years. By the end of this period, the additional annual tax revenue would exceed the program’s annual cost.
This would be a huge step forward for our economy, but also for our system of higher learning. We won’t make real progress on race and class until we dismantle the many barriers that exist within academe. We won’t get where we need to be until all community colleges can give bachelor’s degrees in programs like nursing and teaching suited to local and regional labor markets; until all four-year public colleges reserve at least 20 percent of their seats for community-college transfers; and until every postsecondary award provides a pathway to more education and a living wage.
Free college would be an excellent start.
Anthony P. Carnevale is a research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. He is a co-author of The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America (The New Press, 2020).
Funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities
How can Joe Biden make sure HBCUs get the funding they deserve.
By Ivory A. Toldson
According to the government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, since 2001 the federal government has provided between $1.4 billion and $2.5 billion in funding to HBCUs annually. Directly, HBCUs receive federal funding through congressional appropriations and entitlement programs. They also get money through competitive and noncompetitive grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements with various federal departments and agencies.
Over the past 20 years, the most HBCUs received in a single year was $2,443,129,394 in the 2009-10 academic year — the year President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 into law.
Despite having limited influence over the federal budget, a president can contribute to an environment within the federal government that fosters interest in HBCUs. Comparing the reported federal revenue that HBCUs collectively received during a president’s time in office gives an incomplete picture of a president’s impact on HBCU funding. However, the year-by-year funding trend can underscore the overall federal environment that spurs or stunts federal funding to HBCUs.
In the 2017-18 academic year, HBCUs received $1.9 billion from the federal government in appropriations, grants, and contracts (not including federal financial aid to students). By comparison, HBCUs received $1.8 billion in the last year that Obama was in office. For context, HBCUs received between $1.8 billion and $2.4 billion annually during the Obama administration. President Trump’s first full year of funding at $1.9 billion would rank, comparatively, as Obama’s third-lowest year for HBCU funding.
Considering past performance levels, $2 billion annually is a benchmark of federal funding for HBCUs. With inflation and expansions in size and operation, funding levels should increase over time.
If Joe Biden becomes president, he should acknowledge the importance of HBCUs and assert the federal government’s support by: (1) Issuing an executive order to establish an HBCU initiative; (2) Appointing cabinet-level agency executives who understand the importance of HBCUs, such as Kamala Harris, a graduate of Howard University; (3) Setting up federal monitoring systems to track equity in federal funding; (4) Speaking at HBCU graduations and having high-level federal meetings on HBCU campuses; (5) Hosting national meetings of HBCU leaders and federal agencies to broker relationships that can lead to funding; (6) Vocally supporting sustaining and expanding current appropriations during federal-budget negotiations; and (7) Submitting budget proposals to Congress that include line items to support HBCU research and programs across federal agencies, not limited to the Department of Education.
Ivory A. Toldson is a professor of counseling psychology at Howard University and the editor of The Journal of Negro Education.
Ditch the Republicans; Keep the New Title IX Regs
They’re better than the Obama-era ones.
By Tamara Rice Lave
Come November, it is my fervent hope that Biden will win the presidency, and Democrats will control both houses of Congress. May they quickly undo the injustice wrought over the past four years, including that perpetrated by Betsy DeVos. The new Title IX regulation, however, should be largely left alone.
Unlike the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, the new regulation went through the “notice and comment” process. The Department of Education received over 124,000 comments and ultimately released a lengthy document — one that didn’t simply pay lip service to criticism. For example, the proposed guidelines prohibited schools from initiating an investigation over the wishes of the complainant, but the final regulation removes that restriction if “doing so is not clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances.”
More importantly, the new regulation creates a fairer process. It requires colleges to have a live hearing in which panelists determine responsibility based on the evidence presented. Such a process is significantly better than the single investigatory model, which allowed the same person to investigate and determine responsibility. Having one person perform both roles infects the process with confirmation bias, which is why an American Bar Association task force that included survivor advocates recommended against it in 2017. (I was on that task force.)
The new regulation also mandates that both sides answer questions if they want their personal statements introduced at the hearing — another consensus recommendation of our ABA task force. Although we recommended that questioning take place through a hearing official to minimize possible trauma, the final regulation does allow for direct questioning through an adviser. As long as a hearing official stops questions that harass or intimidate, I believe direct questioning is appropriate.
I have seen the importance of procedural protections to both sides in Title IX hearings. In one memorable case, a woman accused a male student I was advising of drugging and assaulting her. One panelist was moved to tears by the woman’s story — until we showed the campus security tape, which proved she was stone cold sober. I also advocated for a female student who’d been raped by an acquaintance from another university. Would that school have found him responsible if we hadn’t been able to call witnesses and introduce text messages?
Taking rape seriously doesn’t mean assuming every alleged victim is telling the truth. Joe Biden of all people should know that. Although imperfect, the new regulation creates a transparent process that provides both parties with the right to present and challenge evidence in an unbiased hearing. The stakes are simply too high for anything less.
Tamara Rice Lave is professor of law at the University of Miami School of Law. She is also a 2020 Public Voices Fellow.
A Debt-Free Future
College loans threaten to burden future generations.
By Astra Taylor
Covid-19 has made a bad situation much worse. The modern university was built on a faulty foundation (theft of Indigenous land, racial and gendered exclusions, deep ties to industry) that has never been fully repaired, though the institution expanded in scope, purpose, and promise over the course of the 20th century. Unfortunately, recent decades have been particularly hard on America’s fragile system of public higher education: State funding has been slashed, student debt has skyrocketed, and the for-profit college sector exploded. Higher education has become an ever-more costly commodity.
To have any hope of remedying this harm, we need Joe Biden to win. But we shouldn’t have any illusions. For eight years, I’ve been organizing with the Debt Collective, a union for debtors that has been leading the fight for student-debt cancellation and free college. We’ve battled the Department of Education under the Obama and Trump administrations. I shudder at the thought of spending another four years facing off against Betsy DeVos. And yet, should Biden prevail in November, grassroots organizers will need to mobilize to push him to do better — not just better than Donald Trump.
The Obama administration failed students, especially those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. This is a failure Biden was complicit in. As a Debt Collective open letter spells out, “Under their watch, the total amount of student debt doubled, surpassing the total amount of credit card debt for the first time in history. They sat by and allowed impoverished and elderly borrowers’ social security to be garnished.” Tens of thousands of student debtors who were defrauded by predatory colleges — disproportionately Black and brown, often single mothers and first-generation college students — are still waiting for the student-loan relief they are legally entitled to. Because Obama officials dragged their feet, borrowers were left at the mercy of DeVos.
Biden must make amends for these errors. He must also be pushed to recognize the fact, made vividly clear by this pandemic, that there is only one sustainable source of revenue for higher education: public funding (not tuition and fees, not real-estate income, not money from sports and special events). Biden has been pushed to the left on this issue by grassroots activists and his former rival Bernie Sanders and is now running on a platform that includes making public colleges and universities tuition-free for families with incomes below $125,000 and $10,000 of debt cancellation per borrower. Trump’s platform, in contrast, appears to consist of attacking universities and threatening to pull their funding unless they stay open during a pandemic, endangering lives. One candidate literally imperils us all, another allows us to live, learn, and fight another day.
Astra Taylor is a writer, organizer, and documentarian.