These costs, of tuition and the interest on the loans used to pay tuition, are incurred not to pay for some luxury commodity but higher education, which increasingly seems to be a necessity for securing the very means of living. A bachelor’s degree appears to be replacing a high school diploma as a minimum acceptable level of education. As President Obama noted in the State of the Union Address “Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education.”
For individuals, a college degree has been considered a sound investment in the future, the high cost of tuition and interest on student loans thought of as an advance taken in anticipation of future wages. It has been thought of as a ticket to a better life and a better job. A college degree even credentials one for credit, as a fictional episode illustrates. Sophie Kinsella’s popular Shopaholic series opens with character Becky Bloomwood’s first credit card offer, predicated on her University graduation. [ref]Sophie Kinsella, The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic (London: Black Swan, 2000).[/ref]
Student Debt eases the sticker shock of the cost of college. Transformed from a lump sum to deferred monthly payments the cost appears more manageable. While most would balk at total costs that can approach a couple hundred thousand dollars, many gladly take on several hundred dollars a month. These monthly payments perform other, perhaps more important work, as well.
Transforming a huge cost into deferred future payments serves to lower the barrier to acceptance but also to control future actions.
Once consumers step onto the treadmill of regular monthly payments, it becomes clear that consumer credit is about much more than instant gratification. … The nature of installment credit ensures that if there is hedonism in consumer culture, it is a disciplined hedonism, and if there are hedonists in consumer culture, they are less likely to be found lounging on island beaches than keeping their noses to the grindstone at one or more places of employment.[ref]Ibid. 32 [/ref]
Rather than simply enabling excess it serves to produce control and discipline. This discipline forecloses future possibilities that do not prioritize servicing the debt. Paradoxically this is the opposite effect higher education theoretically exists to serve, that of broadening future possibilities. Despite these issues Americans have become accustomed to monthly payment plans, particularly in service of their dreams of a better future. As Calder writes, “American dreams have usually required a lien on the future.”[ref]Ibid. 27 [/ref]
This lien on the future has an impact on education in the present. It pushes to the foreground questions such as “will this major help me get a job?” with the implication “to pay off my crushing student debt” left unstated. This creates pressure to perceive education through the lens of the debt, to choose majors based on future ability to pay back what was incurred while learning. Student debt aids the intrusion of market logic into the classroom, emphasizes the individual rather than the collective, and is part of the driving force to consider students as consumers and education a commodity.
Photo by flickr user ucloccupation
Student debt encourages us to think about education the wrong way, as an individual experience rather than a collective endeavor. Thinking about it in terms of individuals also blinds us to the systemic implications of funding Higher Education through personal debt.
It doesn’t take a Marxist to wonder what we find when we follow the money. It has gone to management.
As tuition has expanded so too has the academic managerial class, transitioning from a system in which administrative responsibilities were filled by faculty members to one modeled on corporations, featuring managers paid more like their industry equivalents than their faculty coworkers. This change has implications beyond the imposition of a new bureaucratic class. Malcolm Harris argues in a recent n +1 article that:
When you hire corporate managers, you get managed like a corporation, and the race for tuition dollars and grants from government and private partnerships has become the driving objective of the contemporary university administration. The goal for large state universities and elite private colleges alike has ceased to be (if it ever was) building well-educated citizens; now they hardly even bother to prepare students to assume their places among the ruling class.[ref]Malcolm Harris, “Bad Education,” N+1, no. April 25 (2011). [/ref]
Increasing tuition correlates strongly with universities’ pursuit of US News and World report rankings. Schools have spent massively on student common space square footage, one of the categories used to calculate their ranking. There has also been a massive increase in spending on advertising and recruitment. This serves to inflate applications and decrease the percentage of admitted students, because “selectivity” is another category factored into the rankings. These are tremendous expenditures with dubious linkages to an educational mission, expenditures ultimately translated into student debt.
Freire urged educators to reject what he termed the Banking Model of Education, from which I borrow my title, in which teachers set themselves above students as the source of knowledge and deposit information in an individual’s mind. Freire and others urged a revolution in educational practices to emphasize knowledge production as a collective enterprise. This included a rethinking of the implications of educational practices to consider the ways in which a teacher is complicit in reproducing larger systems of oppression. They urged us to reconsider how to make education serve the cause of liberation. Keeping students in debt gives a new meaning to Freire’s Banking Model of Education. It reproduces those same hierarchies, and circumscribes their intellectual freedom through obligations to the banking system.
A depressing conclusion to arrive at is that student loans aid the mission of producing “good citizens”, that in neoliberalism a good citizen is an indebted citizen, someone who willingly shackles themselves with debt, and shackles themselves to a lifetime of monthly payments, who internalizes the discipline of debt. For those of us engaged in education: Are the lessons of student debt the ones we want to teach?
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