“Thinking of a master plan,
cuz there ain’t nothing but sweat inside my hand
I dig into my pocket, all my money is spent…
So I dig deeper–still coming up with lint” –Rakim
If the future is an avenue into the world that will be, America’s youth have become the burning garbage cans periodically set ablaze to light the way. Indebted and impoverished, America’s youngest workers have been sold out by the 1 Percent and their speculation-service economy.
We recently found out that America’s student loan debt has surpassed one trillion dollars, with Americans owing more on school payments than car or credit card payments. Nearly 2 in 3 college students borrowed money to go to college, owing an average of more than $12,000. Even in the much imagined “knowledge economy,” there is a paramount level of dysfunction in encumbering the pursuers of that economy-driving knowledge with a trillion dollars worth of debt.
Besides the obvious loss to consumer spending (with that earned income instead being paid back once more to the low-ROI world of stagnant 1% capital), there is also a qualitative loss to the job market as young workers are forced to take the jobs they have to take instead of risking it on jobs more related to their studies that they may want to take. The innovation cost extends beyond even immediately measurable slow-downs in business development. As student debt has become non-dischargeable in bankruptcy, those indebted are guaranteed a reduced income for as long as they owe. Put another way, dampening our consumer economy there are 37 million shoppers who won’t be able to buy as much stuff as their income should allow them to. Even if a consumer-based economic system of exclusively speculators, knowledge workers and service worker were by some mathematical and environmental miracle imagined to be sustainable–it would surely be unsustainable now.
While the student debt load in America prepares to enervate a generation of thinkers and workers, we should see beyond the immediate causal horizon into the history that snowballed into our current crisis. We should also see the financial challenges of acquiring a higher education beyond just the economic struggle and within the context of political struggle over the function and control of the commons.
Much like your post office or your social security, your public higher education system is something that has served you well for generations. Much like your post office or your social security, your public higher education system has, as such, become a target of corporate colonization. Much like your post office or your social security, your public higher education has been facing generations of politically driven budget cuts while facing pernicious informational attacks pretending it’s dysfunctions are the cause of public ownership, transparency and community involvement (and of course, never the budget cuts). Much like your post office or your social security, we are in a multi-generational struggle to prevent the corporate transformation of public higher education from a public service into a private profit engine.
Attacks on community and public colleges have been 40 years and more in the making, state by state across America. With the exception of a few years in the Clinton Era, interestingly enough the last period where real wages grew, public universities saw their share of public funding decrease at a steady pace for nearly half a century. At the same time, a whole host of corporate technical schools and colleges have been flourishing (in terms of profits) in an increasingly deregulated atmosphere as the demand for education could no longer be met by public schools that were either over-populated or under-funded to the point of not being able to offer adequate, relevant coursework. Unsurprisingly enough, often times the very companies leading the dubiously universal charge that public education is underserving the general population were the ones lobbying for education cuts. Thus, in cutting public education the corporate education lobbyist plays the part of both would-be executioner and would-be vulture. As funds for public universities thinned out, the companies that funded those corporate education lobbyists then pumped money into servicing the education market far worse than it had ever been serviced by the public sector. As reported by HuffPo’s Chris Kirkham
Students attending for-profit colleges wind up with much higher student-loan debts, are less likely to be employed after graduation and generally earn less than similar students at public or private nonprofit schools, according to a recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Despite the financial aggression towards public higher education and the never-ending calamity of corporate education, the demand for college degrees, from both an employer and an employee’s perspective, grew to meet a changing economy, one envisioned as the “knowledge economy.” As America’s de-industrialization continued into the 21st century, and jobs that didn’t require a college degree disappeared, the demand for the relative luxury of a college degree turned into an economic need (from a “want,” to a “must-have”). This corporate-cornered demand for higher education then led to explosive profits in several related markets for the very corporations who had cornered the market with political manipulation.
As markets tighten in a corporatist state, supply controllers tend to raise prices to exploit the high demand for their product. This meant that more demand for higher education, while right-wingers were dismantling the public supply of both education and education loans, allowed corporations to dominate education supply, charging as much as they wanted for either a loan for an education or the education itself. As the price of higher education kept climbing so did student debt. For example, in 1999-2000, students took out a total of $48.9 billion in student loans. that number steadily grew to a whopping $109.9 billion by 2009-2010. With the economy tanked by a decade of corporate antics and real wages stagnating and then dropping between 2000-2010, paying those loans has been harder and harder for the 37 million indebted Americans. In fact, outstanding student debt grew by a mind-blowing 511% between 1999 and 2011.
In the first quarter of 1999, just $90 billion in student loans were outstanding. As of the second quarter of 2011, that balance had ballooned to $550 billion
The Pocket Lint Generation may in fact be far bigger than just the folks coming out of college. With entry-level wages actually declining between 2000 and 2011, if you’re in college now or have graduated since the start of the millennium, you too are probably in the Pocket Lint Generation. And while folks under 30 represent only about a third of student debt, they are the ones ramming face first into a stalled economy. A recent report found that 1 in 2 of these new graduates is either jobless or unemployed. Saddled by debt, It’s no surprise then that instead of “moving out” after college, a recent study found that 85% of recent graduates “moved back in” with their families. Furthermore in our current economy, after about 40 weeks of being jobless, if they do find a new job, it’ll probably pay less than they need it to.
Crushed between a pricey education and a worthless job, we’ve left 19-39 year-olds financially stranded in America.
It’s a tragedy how many feasible solutions lay at the ready that will probably be ignored in favor of talking points about personal responsibility (never corporate responsibility) and the need for “student options” (a codeword for the public financing high-end low-performance corporate schools through student loans in a higher educations rendition on the school voucher hustle).
For one, student debt should be dischargeable in bankruptcy. Secondly, a half-century of faux austerity must be reversed, and funds invested directly to public schools of higher educations (which to this day still educate 75% of our college students). Moreover, for those who can’t afford a low-cost public college, generous student aid and low (or zero) rate loans must be made available to them. If private banking institutions are allowed to lend money for school, it should be under government-pinned interest rates, stringently regulated against financial speculation and fine-print exploitation.
America is capable of such vision and critical investments. We did it with a Democrat under FDR and with a Republican under Eisenhower (who, with his 90% marginal tax rate for billionaires would probably be called a “pinko slut” by the modern Republicans). What it takes is a committed effort by the national community to ensure the future health and service of public higher education. Given that the corporate contagion is wreaking havoc on our democracy, we should exercise the democratic maturity to take our struggle beyond “just the ballot.” From interest rates, to defending public universities, from calling every last one of your elected officials to organizing for direct action protest at the community or campus-level, it’s not one struggle, but the wider front of struggles inching us forward, that can finally build those better higher education alternatives while fending off the corporateers. It’s no small fight, but our shared future will always be worth it.