Lady Adjuncts of the Apocalypse

Seventy-five percent of college teachers now work on short-term and/or part-time contracts, prompting Frank Donoghue to call the current generation of tenured scholars the “last professors.” As a part-time college instructor, I taught alongside many such curiosities. I often wondered how they understood the inequality that surrounded them. How did they explain the fact that people who had the same degrees and taught the same classes as they did were paid so little and treated so poorly? A few years ago, when I was teaching English at a large public college in New York City, a tenured colleague suggested an answer. I was in her office to collect an observation report that she had written about my Freshman Composition class. “I was an adjunct once too,” she said, as if sharing a secret. “We’re a sisterhood, you know.”

A sisterhood? This was certainly a new take on the old adage of teaching as a noble calling, especially considering the dominant image of a professor is still a middle-aged man in a tweed jacket. I found myself speechless in response. Why would someone with a lifetime job who taught everyday alongside low-wage teachers with no promise of continued employment assume that she and I were jointly part of anything? It seemed to me that thinking about me as her sister was a way of not thinking about me as a severely underpaid colleague. But how had gender come to win out over economics as a framework for understanding our institutional relation?

We can start to answer the question by expanding the frame and examining the disparity in college degree completion between men and women. Since the 1990s, women have been completing college at higher rates than men. This is true for women in all income groups and for white women as well as for black women and Latinas. Simply put, there are more women in college now than ever before, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down.

The proportionate rise in the number of women entering and completing college is happening at the same time as college teachers are themselves more likely to be women. Numerically speaking, then, the idea that academia is some kind of ‘sisterhood’ is understandable. Moreover, if we believe that more women (students and teachers) on campus is a sign of progress in and of itself, then Donoghue’s era of the “last professors” may have delivered us into one of greater gender equality in higher education.

If this way of looking at things bothers you, it’s because you intuitively understand that there is nothing necessarily progressive about more women on campus, especially in an age of privatization and austerity. We can take a closer look at the data to see what the gender disparity in degree completion actually means. Let’s start with the unsurprising fact that it is wealthy women who are driving the trend. According to NBER researchers:

For those born in the early 1960s, there was little variation between men and women in terms of college completion. For those born in the early 1980s, women outperformed men at all income levels, but especially at the higher income levels. ‘In college entry, persistence, and completion, women in the top-income quartile have pulled away from the rest of the population.’

These findings suggest that the story of more women graduating from college is far from a feminist triumph. Instead, it is a variation on a familiar theme: wealthy people are more likely than poor people to go to college. The difference is that these days those rich people are more likely to be women.

We can better understand the relationship between graduation rates and workplace precarity by noting that women are also overrepresented among the ranks of adjunct faculty. According to the Modern Language Association, women are now “the majority of non-tenure-track faculty members across all types of institutions.” Though women are earning more PhDs than ever before, they are more likely than men to work on part-time or on year-to-year contracts. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kate Bahn identified this trend as “the rise of the lady adjunct.” What do we make of this workforce shift?

As I suggested above, a key to understanding gender demographics in higher education is to place “more women on campus” alongside an historical trajectory of wealth transfer from the bottom to the top. According to Emmanuel Saez, the infamous “one percent” now earns about one-sixth of all income and the top 10 percent about half. Moreover, the trend towards rising inequality has intensified. Since 2009, the top 1% have captured 95% of all income gains. This economic landscape means that an ever-smaller percentage of college graduates are beneficiaries of the so-called “college premium,” the economic benefit supposedly attached to a college degree, and that degree completion itself is highly correlated to family income.

One conclusion to draw from this data is that colleges are not the engines of class mobility that we like to think they are. But colleges are not just crudely reproducing class difference in correspondence with economic trends. Instead, it is more useful to understand colleges as social and political institutions whose funding models are more and more based on taking advantage of the economic insecurities that students bring to college and on treating those insecurities as part of a sales pitch.

As Bob Meister put it, over the last few years, public colleges have begun to promote degrees as a kind of asset that permits students to hedge against being on the wrong side of the line of widening inequality: earning a college degree has come to be understood by students and families as a way, perhaps the only way, to increase the likelihood that you won’t be poor. “Here we have the kernel of a funding model,” Meister explained in an essay about financialization at the University of California, “that allowed public universities to raise prices far faster than the growth of the economy or of median incomes. [College] prices were, rather, geared to the rapid growth of income inequality.” In other words, a diploma will not protect most people from rising inequality since economic gains go to the top one percent anyway, but colleges still justify raising tuition by claiming to offer a credential that protects the bearer from ending up at the bottom.

What does financialization have to do with more women on campus? Proportionate increases in the number of women students and teachers is a phenomenon that has occurred during the same period that a college degree is less likely to confer financial advantage. (Indeed, I do not think college degrees ever did such a thing as “confer financial advantage,” but the idea that they did and do is so engrained in our culture that it’s a necessary starting place for my counter argument.) The point is that the wealthy among us capture most economic gains regardless of whether they went to college or not. In that context, what seems a progressive transformation of women’s place in society – or at least on college campuses – is actually a shifting of the ground upon which economic advantage is conferred.

I propose that women, as both students and teachers, have been permitted broader access to what was formerly considered a resource for upward mobility now that a college degree is more widely recognized to guarantee exactly nothing.

If we are going to reject the liberal argument (and I suggest we do) that colleges “reproduce” privilege in some kind of identarian vacuum, then we must also acknowledge that gender disparity in higher education is an economic relation between teachers, students, and institutions forged in the caldron of austerity and financialization. According to Laura McKenna, “nearly a quarter of all adjunct professors receive public assistance, such as Medicaid or food stamps. Indeed, many adjuncts earn less than the federal minimum wage.” If we bring in Meister’s discussion of diplomas as a risk-management tool, we begin to see a structural component of the neoliberal university emerge: low-income women teaching students (more and more of whom are women) who enrolled in college as a hedge against the risk of being poor.

Demographic data from the country’s largest public college system reveals two trends that starkly illustrate the relation I am trying to describe. The City University of New York’s senior colleges have become more selective in recent years, with 26% of students earning an SAT score of 1200 or better, up from 12% a few years earlier. Since test scores are a proxy for economic class, more selective admissions has meant fewer low-income students and students of color at the flagship campuses. “At CUNY,” reports Michael Fabricant, “20 to 30 percent of students have homelessness or hunger issues” and, as recently as 2011, “54 percent of CUNY students’ family income was less than $30,000.” The vast majority of those students are enrolled in the system’s lower-status community colleges. One program for over 10,000 low-income students at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, for example, lists average household income at $7,305.

The intersection I want to highlight is this: at the same time as more than half of CUNY students are struggling to make ends meet, more than half of all CUNY faculty teaching them are adjuncts.

This relation is important to the economic model Meister described in which colleges market degrees as a hedge against inequality. In his essay on exploited college teachers, Max Haiven argued that “haggard adjuncts” are being positioned to manage the emotional and psychological needs of young people almost certain to be disappointed by their own post-college prospects. “Most students,” he wrote,

will graduate to a life of work that will look more and more like what adjuncts have been experiencing for years: part-time, casual, disposable, poorly paid and hierarchical labor conditions where individuals are blamed for lack of success and where one must cobble together a variety of tenuous contracts not merely to make a living but simply to keep up with loan payments.

If fear of being poor drives college enrollment, then school is about getting a job, even if the job doesn’t exist. The readiness is all. The specter of “haggard adjuncts” teaching for peanuts is a model for ‘learning to labor’ in the hope of regular employment that never arrives. In this economic context, more women on campus is not an advance for gender equality. But nor are women teachers just the castoffs of a financialized higher education system. Instead, they are being centrally positioned through economic insecurity and workforce precarity to serve as exemplars who model the economic and workplace relations that await most students after college.

The rise of women teachers and students in sites of extreme inequality should prompt us to reimagine feminist political activity and solidarity. Nancy Fraser has explained that second wave feminism’s rejection of “economism” helped lead us to the grim place where we find ourselves. “The result [of politicizing the personal] should have been to expand the struggle for justice to encompass both culture and economics,” she wrote.

But the actual result was a one-sided focus on ‘gender identity’ at the expense of bread and butter issues. Worse still, the feminist turn to identity politics dovetailed all too neatly with a rising neoliberalism that wanted nothing more than to repress all memory of social equality.

Where does that leave the idea of sisterhood? The rise of the lady adjunct is not our mothers’ or our grandmothers’ sexism translated across time, wholesale and unchanged, into a new era. It’s a phenomenon of now. The sisterhood invoked by my tenured colleague elided my economic status and consecrated both of us – tenured and adjunct alike – as, simply, women. To her, I write this to say what I should have said then: I am not your sister. The real gender disparity, which is economic inequality, should prompt us to ask what feminist solidarity might look like on the dark road ahead. One thing is certain: as the “last professors” refuse to see, the disappearance of their ranks will be met with deserved indifference as it is nothing to be mourned.

The ‘College Scorecard’: Tall Tales and Confidence Men in the Age of Austerity

In this week’s radio address, the President illustrated how committed the elite political class is to promoting delusional ideas at all costs.

The President took the opportunity to celebrate the release of the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, a website that allows students and parents to “find clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value – like whether they’re likely to graduate, find good jobs, and pay off their loans.” On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a bad thing. But if you think colleges ought to serve all students, the implications are pretty terrible. For instance, schools that enroll lots of low-income people or first-generation students are going to look pretty bad according to the Scorecard rankings. The desire to improve their ranking might lead colleges to stop enrolling students that bring down the numbers.

But the President and the neoliberal robots at the Department of Education are so committed to promoting education as a consumer good and to treating rising defaults as an information problem, that they don’t care who pays the price.

It is important that people can access data about college outcomes, the President said, because “some higher education is the surest ticket to the middle class.”

This assertion is a key part of one of the tallest tales of the last hundred years: that college degrees produce economic gains for individuals. In other words, no matter the state of the job market or the broader economy, proponents of the “college premium” insist that a degree is a magic pill that cures all economic ills.

It’s not surprising that the administration is trotting out the argument at this juncture in history. The President and the Democrats are under pressure to deal with the problem of student loans and the rising cost of college. Forty million Americans are in debt for education, to the tune of $1.3 trillion. Seven million debtors are in default, and that number rises every year.

Unfortunately, politicians have no interest in real solutions. To people struggling to get by, the only thing elites have to offer is education. They have been beating that drum so hard, especially since 2008, that they’re beginning to sound a little hysterical.

The ‘college premium’ is quackery of the first order. The President has become our Snake-Oil-Salesman-in-Chief, whether he actually believes what he’s saying or not. Let’s examine two other assertions from the radio address.

Assertion #1:

“By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education.”

This is just plain false. The Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report in 2009 that projected occupational trends through 2018. They found that most future job openings would not require a college diploma. In fact, only 19% will require a 2- or 4-year college degree. Most job growth will occur in the service and retail sector (cleaners and cashiers) and in the low-wage health care sector. If you dream of becoming a home health care aide earning minimum wage, you won’t have a problem finding a job in the coming years.

Indeed, the BLS also reported that most job growth will be in low-wage industries. Of 10 most rapidly growing jobs over next decade, only one pays more than the median wage.  I don’t know where the President is getting the data showing that two in three future job openings will require a college diploma, but it’s not from the federal government.

Assertion #2:

“One study showed that a degree from a four-year university earns you $1 million more over the course of a lifetime.”

This is hogwash. The one million dollar figure has been discredited by so many people from so many angles that the President is really embarrassing himself.

College degrees can’t lead graduates to jobs that don’t exist, especially if the jobs that do exist don’t pay a living wage. In the New Yorker, John Cassidy recently explained that “one of the main reasons [the college premium] went up in the first place wasn’t that college graduates were enjoying significantly higher wages. It was that the earnings of nongraduates were falling.” The jobs people get, how much money they earn, and how much wealth they ultimately accumulate (or not) are products of multiple overlapping factors, the most important of which are beyond individual control. In that context, breathlessly insisting on the benefits of a college degree is a kind of ritualized sadism that encourages people to blame themselves for larger social problems.

In his radio address, after uttering bizarre paeans to a discredited idea, the President went on to tout the College Scorecard as a solution to…. something. The “status quo,” he said, “doesn’t serve our students well.” I’m confused. If 2/3 of employers want to hire college graduates and if a college degree grants the bearer an extra one million dollars in income over a lifetime, then it seems like the status quo is doing just fine.

Nevermind the contradiction. The President is advertising the special powers of the College Scorecard for some reason. I suspect it’s mostly because the God of Silicon Valley says that More Data is Always Good. Now we can all see which schools are enrolling the richest students and confirm that those graduates are getting the best jobs. The problem is, in an age of low-wage work, austerity, and debt, a lack of data transparency about that fact is not a social problem of any consequence whatsoever.



Cancel All Corinthian Colleges Student Debt (with Astra Taylor)

This op-ed was published in the Los Angeles Times on June 23, 2015. During fact-checking, the editor added a phrase that my co-author and I did not write and would not have approved. We did not catch the addition in time. I am posting the correct version here.


In February, 15 students who had attended Corinthian Colleges Inc. launched the nation’s first student debt strike. The students declared that they would no longer repay their loans on the grounds that Corinthian — a network of for-profit schools including Everest, Heald and WyoTech — had used fraudulent marketing and recruitment practices and that the credits and degrees they earned were worthless. Soon the Corinthian 15 became the Corinthian 100, and the 200. Groups such as the American Federation of Teachers and Jobs With Justice endorsed their cause.

Corinthian filed for bankruptcy in May, and the Department of Education has now announced a plan to cancel the debt of some former Corinthian students.

This is a significant victory for the strikers. It shows that the tactic of debt refusal, when strategically deployed, can get results. But the department hasn’t done nearly as much as it could, or should, to set things right.

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan revealed the debt relief plan, he blasted schools such as Corinthian for bringing “the ethics of payday lending into higher education.” These schools, Duncan said, “prey on the most vulnerable students and leave them with debt that they too often can’t repay.” Indeed, a third of Corinthian students came from families that earned less than $10,000 per year.

A close look at the fine print, however, reveals that Duncan and his staff are presenting a stopgap measure as a meaningful solution. Instead of issuing a blanket discharge to all former Corinthian students, the department offers a byzantine process that will likely leave out many students.

Most students will have to apply individually, and be required to submit transcripts and other documents that may be hard to come by because their campuses have shut down or been sold. They must also spell out what parts of a state law Corinthian violated in their particular case. These students are not lawyers, and they should not be required to do the job of a federal agency with a fleet of attorneys on staff.

Students, already drowning in debt, will soon find themselves tied up in red tape, and that’s only if they know the relief program exists in the first place. The Education Department has announced no plans to alert students about their options, even though it acknowledged to the New York Times that in past cases of college closures, only 6% of students have typically asked for debt cancellation.

It’s clear from the long trail of allegations against Corinthian that it was a “bad actor,” a term federal officials used in a meeting with strikers and organizers. The state of California has been investigating the company since at least 2007, when a last-minute settlement stopped an impending lawsuit. Since then, dozens of state and federal authorities have investigated Corinthian. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued the company in 2014, accusing it of operating a predatory lending scheme.

But the Education Department is largely to blame for the problem of unscrupulous, for-profit schools. For decades, the government has funded billions of dollars in grants, loans and GI Bill benefits to students at these institutions. A 2012 Senate Committee found that 86% of the revenue at 15 of these publicly traded schools came from taxpayers. Corinthian alone got $1.4 billion a year — much of which flowed to conservative think tanks and public relations firms, according to investigative reporter Lee Fang.

In 2014, the Education Department accused Everest College of lying to students about job placement rates and briefly cut off federal funding to Corinthian. After the company said it could not survive even a few weeks without the public money, the Education Department continued funding Corinthian while the network sought a buyer.

The Education Department is aware that its actions in this case will set a precedent. There are other for-profit colleges that are teetering on the brink of collapse. The Securities and Exchange Commission, for instance, recently announced it was investigating ITT Tech for fraud. And in May, the Art Institutes announced it would shut down more than a dozen campuses.

It’s clear that the Department of Education does not want to be in the position of having to cancel potentially millions of student loans. But anything less would be morally unacceptable. The government makes an obscene profit from the student loan program — an estimated $110 billion over the next decade. This is unjustifiable in any case, but especially when students are defrauded. Why not divert some of the $110 billion to make scammed students whole?

According to attorneys at the National Consumer Law Center, the Education Department has the legal power to issue a broad cancellation of Corinthian loans. Reaching into its own coffers to erase the debts of the hundreds of thousands of former Corinthian students is both lawful and the right thing to do.

Free Community College is Nothing to Celebrate, or What Piketty Means for Education

Last week Obama announced a proposal to make community college free (the Federal government would pay 75% and each state would pick up the rest of the cost). Adapted from a program that is already in place in Tennessee, the President described the initiative using free-market language, arguing that such a plan would help “train our work force so that we can compete with anybody in the world.”

I’m on the record supporting free tuition at public colleges. It would be absurdly cheap to fully fund higher education, and Obama’s plan presents an opportunity to expand the discussion to include all 2- and 4-year institutions and to push for a system that provides a quality education to everyone. Beyond the unlikely prospect of success on that front, there is not much to celebrate in this proposal. Early indications are that in order to qualify for the program, community college students would have to major in so-called “high-demand” fields that can be proven to “lead to jobs,” a vocational orientation towards teaching and learning that deserves a serious critique from the left.

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of uncritical praise from journalists and Progressives. The Chronicle of Higher Education called the proposal “historic.” Richard D. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation called it “genius” and said that such a program could make community colleges “engines of social mobility.” Mike Konzcal wrote in The Nation that the plan would turn two-year colleges into an “egalitarian machine.”

All of these positive feelings are seriously misplaced. The truth is that education can’t fix inequality. I feel compelled to say this because I value teaching and learning so much. The freedom to think, read, write, and discuss ideas with others is so crucial to life that I insist on being scrupulously honest about what education can do and what it can’t.

To understand the limits of education, Thomas Piketty’s work is a good place to start. Capital in the 21st Century was a surprise bestseller last year. It got everyone talking about inequality, even economists who (surprisingly to a layperson like myself) don’t like to talk about such things.

The crux of Piketty’s argument is that the 20th century was an aberration in world economic history. “The reduction of inequality that took place in most developed countries between 1910 and 1950,” he writes, “was above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war.” Apart from those global events which produced taxation and financial policies that resulted in broadly distributed prosperity (relatively speaking), the history of capitalism shows a clear trendline towards increasing inequality. That is the path that we’re almost certainly back on. In Piketty’s words, the “unprecedented situation” of the 20th century “is about to end.”

Assuming Piketty has a point (and judging from the critical reception of his book, many people think he does), then the next question is: What is the role of education in solving inequality?

Piketty’s answer is clear: education didn’t create 20th century prosperity by itself, and more college degrees can’t reduce inequality or provide mass social mobility.

We can best understand the implications of Piketty’s research for national educational policy by examining the roots of the proposed plan for free community college. The New York Times explained that the basis for the idea

can be found in a 2008 book by the [Harvard] economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz called ‘The Race Between Education and Technology’ … which tells the story of how the United States built the world’s most successful economy by building its most successful education system. At the heart of that system was the universal high school movement of the early 20th century, which turned the United States into the world’s most educated country. These educated high school graduates — white-collar and blue-collar alike — powered the prosperity of the 20th century.

Goldin and Katz argue that post-war prosperity (that mostly benefitted white men) was a product of universal education. But Piketty pretty much destroys this thesis in Capital. Their argument, he says, is largely based on the theory of marginal productivity, the “idea that a worker’s wage is always perfectly determined…by skill.” This model is simplistic because it doesn’t explain why the rich have gotten much richer, especially in the United States, since 1980. People in the top 9% of the income scale, Piketty explains,

 have progressed more rapidly than the average worker but not nearly at the same rate as ‘the 1 percent.’ Concretely, those making more than $500,000 a year have seen their remuneration literally explode (and those above $1 million a year have risen even more rapidly).

This extreme divergence at the top cannot be explained by the theory of marginal productivity. There is no evidence that those with the highest incomes are more productive than everyone else, including other very rich people just below them on the scale. Furthermore, there is no difference between the 9% and the 1% in terms of education or skill. And yet it is undeniable that the topmost group saw their income and wealth skyrocket in the last three decades.

Piketty’s analysis is devastating for the theory of skills- and technology-based economic change espoused by Goldin and Katz and many of the proponents of free (vocational) college courses. The idea that reducing inequality is a matter of people’s skills catching up to technology (a problem education can solve, at least in the short term) doesn’t explain the widening gap between the 9% and the 1%, just as it doesn’t explain the gap between the rich and poor or the hollowing out of the middle class. In a further rebuke to Goldin and Katz, Piketty argues that neoclassical economists treat the economy as a “mathematical abstraction” rather than what it actually is: a system of rewards and punishments that reflects the values and compromises of society and the power arrangements in place at any given time.

Considering the popularity of Obama’s free college proposal and Piketty’s critique of its theoretical basis, how should the left respond? It is beyond the scope of this post to fully answer that question. However, one way to think about the problem is by sticking with Piketty for a bit longer.

Education, Piketty writes, “has an intrinsic value.” In Capital, he makes several original connections between history, literature, and economics. The book itself is a demonstration of the rich interdisciplinarity of his method, which tells us a lot about the kind of education that prepares people to think creatively and rigorously about the world and the problems we face.

Piketty uses this method to counteract the lazy assumption that education acts as a kind of free market lever that can radically change how wealth is distributed and to whom. “Make no mistake,” he writes,

I am not denying the decisive importance of the investments in higher education … Policies to encourage broader access to universities are indispensable and crucial in the long run, in the United States and elsewhere. As desirable as such policies are, however, they seem to have had limited impact on the explosion of the topmost incomes observed in the United States since 1980.

Universal access to education is part of a social commitment to democracy, “indispensable” to civilization “in the long run.” But it can’t autonomously change very much about the distribution of wealth or the basic fact of who makes the rules in the present.

This is the context that Obama’s proposal for “free” community college leaves out. This gap is not surprising when we consider that the Lumina Foundation provided research funding to support the development of the proposal. Lumina is partially funded by the Gates Foundation. Another Gates-funded non-profit, Complete College America, promoted the idea at its annual conference. (One of CCA’s primary policy initiatives is to “encourage performance-based financing” of higher education.) It’s important that we ask why the same organizations that are pushing for the privatization of education are suddenly interested in free community college.

Furthermore, Obama and Secretary Duncan have spent 6 years supporting efforts to de-fund and privatize education at every level. Through programs like Race to the Top, they’ve sought to tie education funding to test scores and distribute public money to charter schools. We should be asking why they are now proposing a substantial investment in community colleges.

It seems that Progressives and the education privatization movement are working from the same flawed script. The New York Times is also a culprit: “Both history and economics,” David Leonhardt wrote in an article on the Obama proposal, “suggest that nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy.” This is simply not true. In capitalism the major factor involved in determining “living standards” is capital, not education. If we want to reduce inequality, we should distribute social resources like wealth and income more equally. Assuming that education can serve as a substitute for that essential work is, in Piketty’s words, “out of touch with reality.”








Strike Student Debt

How much is your student debt really worth? Probably less than you think. Most people are not aware that creditors sell off defaulted debt for pennies on the dollar to a shadowy market of debt buyers and collectors who then try to collect the full amount from the debtor. A New York–based activist collective, Strike Debt, created the Rolling Jubilee fund to buy debt on this secondary market just as debt collectors do. Only instead of collecting on that debt, Strike Debt erases it. Rolling Jubilee has now forgiven almost $4 million in student loans for the bargain price of a little more than $100,000.

Since 2012, Strike Debt has bought up almost $15 million in medical debt — obligations that people incur when they are sick or have an accident but can’t pay their medical bills. This is an admittedly minuscule amount in a multibillion dollar market, but the point of the Rolling Jubilee is to illustrate that debts are written off all the time, just not typically in favor of the debtor. Further proof of the power of creditors is that the government guarantees profits on most kinds of student loans, so they are not for sale on the secondary market. However, we found that some forms of private tuition debt are available for purchase.

Once people realize how little student loans are really worth to the creditors who sell them for pennies on the dollar, they might ask why they should pay the full amount.

Our most recent purchase was a portfolio of private student loan debt held by 2,761 people who attended Everest College, a division of the Corinthian Colleges (CCI) for-profit network. There are over 100 Everest campuses and online degree programs in two dozen states. Since the 1990s, Corinthian has enrolled hundreds of thousands of people in pricey vocational programs, encouraged them to take out student loans and then used those dollars to enrich officials and shareholders — a business model that is little more than legalized theft that funnels money from public to private hands. During its heyday, Corinthian received more than $500 million annually from the federal Pell Grant program, more than the entire University of California system.

Earlier this summer, Corinthian was finally pushed off a financial cliff when the Department of Education (DOE), along with more than a dozen other federal and state agencies, launched an investigation into the company’s deceptive tactics, including lying about graduation rates and employment options for degree holders. An official in the California attorney general’s office testified that the company engaged in the “most persistent, egregious and widespread” abuse of students she had ever seen. And when the DOE temporarily cut off Corinthian’s access to federal funds, the college announced that bankruptcy was imminent.

By abolishing the private debt of Everest College students, we hope to illustrate how the federal government, through its support of market-based reforms in higher education, is more interested in protecting for-profit schools than students.

When CCI announced its bankruptcy, rather than rushing to the aid of students, the DOE stepped in to save Corinthian from collapse, appointing a monitor to help the company negotiate the sale of most of its 107 campuses to an unnamed buyer.

The sale is part of the federal government’s ongoing effort to bring market-based reforms to higher education at all levels. The DOE says it is protecting taxpayers from having to reimburse students who would be eligible for a debt discharge if their campus shut down. But why should students have to pay while the company that defrauded them gets a helping hand?

Instead of answering that question, the DOE has been focused on requiring colleges to ensure their value to consumers. Colleges whose graduates don’t find jobs and repay their student loans in a timely fashion would be ineligible for federal funds. The proposed college rating system would treat education as a commercial product and students as customers who simply need better information to choose a college — the way they choose a brand of cereal.

The thinking behind President Barack Obama’s higher education policy is also behind the DOE’s effort to save Corinthian. If Corinthian is just a bad brand in an otherwise healthy education market, then assuring the sale of the campuses is in the best interest of students. Yet according to federal rules, students whose campuses are sold will be rendered ineligible for a discharge of their loans. Those with the most to lose have had no voice in the debate about what happens to Corinthian. Defrauded students are at the mercy of the DOE as it pursues a strategy of weeding out bad brands instead of defending their interests.

The federal government’s response to the Corinthian debacle should push us to ask deeper questions about the role of college in helping people achieve economic security.

In addition to being buried by debt, many people find themselves under- or unemployed even after earning a college degree. The widening gap between the rich and poor is a bigger problem than the gap between those who attended college and those who didn’t. As the Economic Policy Institute recently reported, “Education is not the cure for high unemployment or for income inequality.” Tressie McMillan Cottom has further explained that “for those of us looking for economic security who are not fortunate or able enough to be fast-tracked into the good jobs, there isn’t much college can do.”

Policies that encourage broad access to quality higher education are worth fighting for, but they shouldn’t blind us to the reality that a diploma produces an economic benefit only when access to the resources one needs to thrive, including a fair income, are available.

If one takes a step back and looks at the economy as a whole, it’s clear that Corinthian is not just a bad operator in an education marketplace that provides struggling students and families with a path to dignity and security.

Instead, CCI’s alleged crimes provide a startlingly clear example of a crisis of inequality that can’t be solved by ensuring that colleges operate according to market-based logic. Nor can it be solved by protecting Corinthian from the outcome of its actions, at the expense of students who deserve to have their debts discharged.

People with private loans from for-profit colleges are not the only ones who ought to have their debts canceled. In fact, all students should have the right to learn and prepare for careers without the burden of a lifetime of debt. To offer this kind of real value, public higher education should be free. Current debtors should have the opportunity to negotiate a write off of their debts, just as creditors do. Strike Debt bought student loans for pennies on the dollar. The question student debtors around the country should start asking is, “Why should we pay more?”

– This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera America

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