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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The Special Master Feels Your Pain: For-profit College Students Demand Debt Cancellation in D.C.


It is a rare occasion when policy elites sit across the table from those whose lives are affected by their decisions. Last week, I participated in just such an event when I accompanied a group of student debt strikers and defrauded former for-profit college students to a meeting in Washington D.C. with a man who has the power to cancel their loans and alleviate their suffering.

Joseph A. Smith is the “Borrower Defense Special Master” (yes, the acronym is BDSM) for the U.S. Department of Education. Formerly the federal monitor for the National Mortgage Settlement (a program that was criticized for severely limiting the number of homeowners who actually received promised relief), Smith was appointed BDSM in June after 200 hundred former for-profit students went on strike and thousands more disputed their loans through a little-known provision in the Higher Education Act called “Defense to Repayment.”

Most of the students had attended Corinthian, which enrolled hundreds of thousands of people over the years. It promised them high-paying jobs and brand-new lives and delivered little more than dashed dreams and a lifetime of unpayable debt. After raking in billions in taxpayer dollars and delivering windfall profits to wealthy investors for almost two decades, the company declared bankruptcy last year. Students, however, are stuck with their debt.

The meeting between defrauded borrowers and Smith was an unusual occasion inside the halls of power. The Department of Education is the federal agency that regulates colleges and universities. The Secretary is a cabinet-level appointee and, with 5,000 employees and a budget of around $70 billion, the Department is charged with ensuring that students receive an education worthy of the name. The agency’s dereliction of duty began years ago. During the same decade when President Bill Clinton was ramping up efforts to deregulate the financial industry as a whole, Congress authorized for-profit colleges to generate up to 90% of their revenue from federal student loans. For the last 25 years, the Department has funneled billions into hundreds of schools set up with the explicit goal of providing big profits to financial firms like Goldman Sachs (a former owner of for-profit operator, EDMC) and Wells Fargo (the largest investor in Corinthian).

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Obama Should Cancel Defrauded Students’ Debts Already

Throughout the primary, the leading candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination have promised to take action on the $1.3 trillion student debt crisis. These calls have been echoed by President Barack Obama himself, who declared in his final State of the Union address that “no hardworking student should be stuck in the red” and called on Congress to make college more affordable.

He’s right that student debt is a debilitating burden for millions of students and their families. But Obama also has the unilateral authority to help those students now by canceling the student loans of those who attended predatory for-profit colleges. He just has to use it.

On February 17, members of the Obama administration, a representative of the for-profit college industry and borrower advocates are scheduled to gather for three days of high-stakes talks about whether defrauded students are eligible for debt relief. This process has been unnecessarily delayed for months, hurting students along the way. Now it is time for the White House to prove that it seriously wants to address the student debt crisis.

Read the rest of this editorial in Politico.

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.

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