Into the Weeds

Since Trump won the Presidency, there have been many attempts to characterize the failures of liberalism. Thomas Frank wrote that the Democratic party itself is the “expression of an enlightened professional class [whose] core economic interests simply do not align with those of working people.” What does party liberalism look and feel like to those whose needs and concerns it has been accused of ignoring? We can draw some conclusions by reviewing how Democrat officials behaved when faced with an urgent economic demand from an aggrieved group of working-class people in the last days of the Obama administration.

In 2014 I co-founded the Debt Collective, a group organizing to demand debt relief from creditors. Such organizing complements the work of the labor movement and is aimed at building class power in the age of finance. For our inaugural project, we collaborated with a group of people who had attended Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit chain with more than one hundred campuses around the country. At a cost of two to three times higher than public schools, for-profit colleges emerged from the liberal commitment to give everyone the opportunity to earn a degree. For-profit education grew to a multi-billion dollar industry within a neoliberal framework that treats college as an investment that individuals make to improve their market position relative to others against whom they must compete for access to scarce resources.

Corinthian sold the dream of a better life to working-class people who enrolled to earn precious credentials for higher paying careers. Once the largest for-profit college chain in the nation, the company took in more than one billion dollars per year in federal funding, only a fraction of which was spent on instruction. Profits rolled in to the well connected, including Senator Diane Feinstein’s husband and former Corinthian investor, Richard Blum, and President Clinton’s former chief of staff, Leon Panetta, who served on the board of Corinthian. Students who attended the colleges that proved so profitable to elites ended up with little more than a worthless piece of paper and lifetime of debt.

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Trump’s Corporate Coup d’État and the Elimination of Human Teachers

Many educators, students, and policymakers are trying to figure out what a Trump Presidency means for public education. In this post, I’d like to propose one answer: a Trump administration means the acceleration of a privatization program that has been underway over the last 25 years. More specifically, a Trump administration means a shorter road to teacherless classrooms where traditional courses are replaced by credentialing and badging programs designed by corporations and funded by the federal government.

The blueprint for this system overhaul emerged from the Department of Defense and various pieces are already in place. As Alison McDowell has shown in her impressive research, in 1999 Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 13111 to create the “Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative.” The order, according to McDowell, sought to “bind education to the needs of industry and the economy.” Watch her 10-minute clip, “How Exactly Did the Department of Defense End up in My Child’s Classroom?”

What is the purpose of teacherless classrooms and digital credentialing programs that don’t require brick and mortar buildings and what do corporations and the Federal government have to do with it? Years ago, I wrote about a comment made by Francis Fox Piven that struck me as incredibly important: “We used to think,” she said, “the ruling class wanted to use education to reproduce the class structure. Now I’m not sure they’re interested in reproducing anything.” This comment surprised me at the time it was uttered because it challenged me to rethink “social reproduction” theories in education.

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Obama’s Missed Chance to Help For-Profit College Students

Student debt, which now totals more than $1.3 trillion, is a debilitating hardship for millions of students and families. While presidential candidates will surely debate the issue all summer long, many people may not realize that a key battle over how and when student loans can be legally canceled is already underway.

On Monday, the Department of Education released a proposed rule providing a pathway to debt cancellation for students who were defrauded by a for-profit college. Unfortunately, the proposal, which is not yet final, will make it difficult for student debtors to get relief, even when the law is on the side of students.

Student loans are especially burdensome for for-profit college students, a disproportionate number of whom come from low-income backgrounds and are the first in their families to attend college. For-profit schools lure students with a high-pressure sales pitch to get them to enroll in sham degree programs. Then they load them up with debts they can never repay. For-profit schools enroll only 10 percent of all students but account for 40 percent of defaults.

Students from for-profit colleges have been leading a campaign for debt relief for well over a year using a rarely used law called Defense to Repayment which requires the Department of Education to cancel loans held by students who were defrauded by their school.

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CUNY On The Brink

Today the New York Times published a startling (if you haven’t been inside a CUNY campus lately) exposé on the shameful financial state of the City University of New York. Reporter David Chen describes an institution with a “proud legacy” in severe decline. Thanks to state budget cuts, tuition has risen 33% since 2008 and campuses are falling apart. Writing about City College, Chen tells of “leaking ceilings [that] have turned hallways into obstacle courses of buckets. The bathrooms sometimes run out of toilet paper.”

I am familiar with such conditions. As an adjunct at Hunter College, I and dozens of other part-time teachers toiled in dirty, overcrowded offices with mice droppings scattered around.

Crumbling buildings are not the only sign of a university on the brink. The NYT also reported that courses have been cancelled due to lack of funds. One campus library received a book budget of only $13,000 for the entire year, down from $60,000 ten years before.

While reports about what austerity has wrought at CUNY are usually welcome, the NYT piece promotes a mythology about higher education that requires some correction.

Chen laments the neglect of a storied institution because he worries that an atrophied CUNY can no longer be the democratizing force that it once was. “Even as the role of higher education as an engine of economic mobility has become increasingly vital,” he explains, “governments have been pulling back their support.”

One hears these sorts of claims all the time about higher education as an engine of mobility. In polite company, it is practically a criminal offense to question the assertion that college is the tide that can lift all enrollees to the middle class, or better. After the Great Recession, politicians and policy makers of every stripe insisted that the solution to our economic woes was more education (preferably the kind geared narrowly to the needs of employers).

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Against ‘Gainful Employment’

Last month, a unanimous Appeals Court ruling strongly affirmed the federal government’s ‘gainful employment’ regulation which requires “career colleges” (including for-profit schools and certificate programs in some non-profit institutions) to show they are preparing students to find good jobs. The Department will now require such schools to demonstrate that their graduates’ loans do not exceed 20% of disposable income – or 8% of total earnings – to be eligible for federal student loan money.

As an Obama administration initiative, the ruling was celebrated as a victory by democrat policymakers and by critics of the for-profit college industry. I’m writing this to offer a dissenting view. I think ‘gainful employment’ is a step in the wrong direction. In reality, GE has little to nothing to offer first-generation collegians and low-income students who seek credentials for higher-status careers and better lives. In fact, the new rules are based in an elitist policy framework in which schools that serve mostly non-traditional students are further inscribed in law and custom as solely utilitarian job training venues that require oversight according to narrow accountability measures whereas institutions that serve wealthier students are tacitly recognized as primarily providing outcomes that can’t and shouldn’t be quantified.

It’s one thing to acknowledge stratification in higher education and to recognize that our society funnels low-income students into lower-status colleges and lower-paying jobs. It’s quite another, though, to celebrate policies that further entrench the divide between the haves and the have-nots. The divide is not only occupational; it is intellectual and cultural. Working-class folks are expected to develop productive skills, while elites are expected to learn habits of mind and ways of seeing and being in the world. The ‘gainful employment’ rule accepts this divide as a given and promotes the notion that the goal of education for working-class people is a job that allows them to make regular loan payments, a paltry outcome that elite parents would never accept for their children.

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