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

Life After Debt: Why America Needs an Anti-Capitalist Left

Does America need a Left? Yes, very much. We need a Left that rejects a vision of politics based on the expansion of an unjust economic system, which is to say that we need a Left that rejects James Livingston’s advice that we “compromise with the world as it actually exists.” This is not a call to reject pragmatism, but rather to acknowledge that the “world as it actually exists” has for too long been defined through reactionary terms. We argue instead for an activist, avowedly anti-capitalist Left, one that seeks to tear away the constraints that have impeded necessary, fundamental change.

The Left, which for too long has capitulated to rules of engagement established by conservatives, needs to work to find alternatives to our present debt-financed society.

Unfortunately, this Left, though it exists in fragments, is overshadowed in the United States. Those who would claim the mantle of the Left have tried for too long to advance their goals by appeasing the Right, hoping, misguidedly, to find common cause and to compromise their way into a better world. The progressive movement—the institutions, think tanks, pundits, and politicians that currently stand in as the serious spokespeople of the Left—speaks of  “good jobs,” “economic growth,” and “regulated markets,” appealing to a mythical middle ground that has never and cannot exist. By capitulating the very terms of engagement to conservatives, progressives have distorted their message and acted against the interests they purport to serve.

America needs a Left that does not, as Michael Lerner noted, approach the question of social change in an “economistic” fashion. The progressives that dominate political discussion and action share in common a vision of change as emerging via market mechanisms. This mainstream Left is beyond rehabilitation. We believe, like Eli Zaretsky, that “progress is blocked by the same internal capitalist dynamic that created progress in the first place.” We must counter capitalism not by appealing to it, but by opening space for people to no longer be dominated by its logics. The demand for such a Left is undeniable. What’s missing is only the political will to see it through.

Read the rest of this article (co-authored with Henry Ostrom) in Tikkun.

We’re All Workers and We’re All Intellectuals

“The white collar/blue collar distinction makes very little sense.”

Rhetoric and Composition’s Dead

There is a growing online literature, by those with no access to the traditional academic forums, that tells the stories of former academics and graduate students being forced out of their jobs. Some decide they no longer want academic careers, but most report being unable to support themselves in the low-wage hellscape that some still call “higher education.” The last few years have also seen rising anger and frustration from students and families who are paying an ever higher price for college at the same time that, for most students, a four-year degree is more likely to lead to a lifetime of debt than to a higher wage job. I’ve been thinking about the convergence of these two phenomena in relation to the “leaving academia” genre. As the old idea of higher education as a publicly funded social good and a viable career path for teachers and researchers dies, there have been fewer accounts by post academics of what the scholarly fields we wanted to join look like from afar, once reflections on personal experience become deeper ruminations on the connection between individual lives and global transformations.

This essay examines Rhetoric and Composition, a sub-field of English in which I hold a PhD, from such a distance. My thinking about the issues raised in this text has been informed by theories on the political left that illustrate how education at all levels is being restructured according to the capitalist imperative to consolidate power and wealth in the hands of a few at the expense of everyone else. I hope to add something to the conversation about the particular (and, I believe, substantial) role that “Rhet Comp” has played in that process in academia and how those of us who identify as Compositionists might usefully employ our knowledge and skills in the aftermath of our discipline.

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