Talk about slavery! It is not the peculiar institution of the South. It exists wherever men are bought and sold, wherever a man allows himself to be made a mere thing or tool, and surrenders his inalienable rights of reason and conscience. Indeed, this slavery is more complete than that which enslaves the body alone.
(Henry David Thoreau, journal, Dec. 4, 1860)
It appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear.
(Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or Life In The Woods)
Envisioning the current living situation of a university graduate from the U.S. that I know personally
Imagine you are in your early 40s, single. You have dedicated 10 years of your life to further, tertiary education; you have a Ph.D. in your pocket. You have a decent job in science at a research institute of the government. You live in a rented 30m2 studio apartment in a metropolitan city of the United States, you don’t own a car but ride your bicycle to work every morning, and you don’t have to look after any dependents with the exception of two rather unpretentious house cats. You buy decent food, but nothing out of the ordinary like caviar or Kobe beef; mainly local produce. You hardly eat out, but cook something yourself at home and only go shopping for the bare necessities. Traveling? Maybe once a year. No cruise ships, perhaps a trek in the Rockies with friends.
Sounds like pretty affordable living, right? Not many expenses, no big spending. No mortgage to pay off, no alimonies, no child support, no car insurance. Life is sweet!
Oh wait, we forgot to mention that you have to pay back a gigantic student loan: 100.000$. And that is only for your master’s degree (plus student boarding and normal expenses that simply piled up during your studies), as you managed to get a grant for your bachelor’s and doctoral degree. Under current projections, it will take you the next 30 years (!) to pay everything back, by which time you will be in the waning stages of your life.
Gulp! What? Seriously? When my friend from the U.S. told me her story of how tough a time she has making ends meet and paying back her student loan, she had to convince me first that she wasn’t exaggerating. For us Europeans this is hard to fathom (with the exception of students from the UK who have to pay similarly outrages amounts of tuition fees). For my bachelor and master studies in Germany I paid a mere 500 Euros in tuition fees in total – and my education was excellent. That amount would have actually been zero, if the German government hadn’t decided to introduce 500 Euros of tuition fees in my last semester of studying, only to flip back again to the zero tuition policy two years later in the face of mounting pressure from students and society.
So considering the different financial starting points of my friend’s and my post-university lives, we are looking at a gap of 100.000$! My balance: ± 0 Euros; My friends balance: – 100.000 USD. Merely a tad of a difference, right?
The cynicism of the For-Profit Education narrative
Let us consider carefully what it actually means to students’ lives on the utmost personal level and to the very fabric of society as a whole, if education is solely provided on a privatized, for-profit basis. Basically your life and the chances you have in life will be at the mercy of a system which does not give a tiny rat’s ass about your well-being and personal growth, as well as the community as a functioning unit of togetherness. A system which exerts control over citizens in a very perfidious manner: The established narrative in society is that education is of vital importance, and rightfully so. Of course it is. It is the door opener to live a dignified, informed life; a door opener to how you perceive and make sense of the world; a door opener to how people will approach and treat each other; a door opener to meet eloquent, inspiring people to elevate your social discourse to a different level; a door opener to get access to higher paid and more respected jobs.
So it is clear that education forms a very basic, essential necessity for a good, fulfilling life. And yet the U.S. government and its Ivy League leaders are cynical enough to cough up an education system that is outrageously unequal and makes tertiary education virtually inaccessible to the less affluent layers of society, or only under the condition of gambling with one’s financial future and peace of mind. If you come from a wealthy family that can afford paying for a good education out of the petty cash you are good to go. If you don’t, you end up with a huge mountain of debt the height of Mount Everest and you will spend the rest of your life paying it off and living frugally, always in fear that you might not be able to pay off your debt because you might get laid off.
Land of the unfree
The land of the free is exceedingly putting its citizens who are not part of the top 5% into the financial shackles of private education, private healthcare and the sickest financial system that the world has ever seen. One does not have to be a rocket-scientist to understand that a huge pile of debt renders you un-free. In a profit-seeking system which clearly works under the dehumanizing paradigm of winners-losers, there are only very few that end up with everything, while the rest become the slaves to the few. And make no mistake: Modern-day slavery is what it is!
You are inescapably chained to a situation where you desperately need to make money; otherwise your debt will eat you up. Having horrible colleagues at your job or a boss who capitalizes on your misfortune? Well, you have to stick with the job, because the phantom of your debt is menacingly lurking in the background. Because of your unbearable working situation and desperate financial situation you become more and more depressed and you find it hard to deal with all the pressure. You would basically need some professional psychological help, but that is too expensive in the land of milk and honey, so you decide to keep slugging through life, eyes wide shut. All the while the government is rubbing its hands over the constant flux of income (in the form of your student loan), even though the interest rate is pretty low at about 1%, and knowing that they keep you and your mind worried, occupied and compliant.
The parallels to the concept of slavery, which we had hoped that it had been overcome, are all too striking: Private educational institutions are run by business-oriented individuals whose ethics can be described as questionable at best. Only caring about the highest possible profits, students get reduced to mere human capital. Private educational institutions do not have students’ best educational interests at heart anymore in the sense that students are allowed the time and leisure to explore new things, seek truth and knowledge for personal growth and to the improvement of mankind. No! Education is served economically in short rations, streamlined so that it fits exactly the needs of the working world later on. The unfortunate and wretched become small cogs in the big machine that runs to bed the top 1%. Powerless you stare into the abyss of a torn society which boasts in its very own anthem to be “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”!
Changing the Narrative of Society
And now comes the important part: The system which is controlled by the winning elite will try and make you believe that all this cannot be changed. That if you would like to have a good education, it comes with a price tag. That there have to be losers in order to have winners.
No! There are always alternative ways to the current system. The people who profit from this system just simply do not want it to be changed. They want you to be powerless. The resources for allowing everybody who would like to receive a tertiary education to have it for free are there. Plentiful! If America has the highest concentration of billionaires, if things like golf courses, yachts and private jets exist, it is rather obvious that there is no lack of resources. It is a matter of distribution and willingness to give everybody a piece of the pie. It is “merely” a matter of changing the system.
Interestingly enough most reform plans in the U.S., like for example the Oregon ‘Pay it Forward’-program do not really offer a debt-free or tuition-free college education at all. At the end of the day there will still be a significant amount of money that will come out of students’ paychecks once they join the workforce. It is merely a matter of WHEN the money is owed and not IF. So basically this proposed reform simply comes in a different shade of grey, but not as a radically different solution. It can hardly be called a reform but it is rather an aimless call for action.
In order to have a truly socially relevant solution, college education however needs to come truly tuition free. To pay for this there are basically three major points that should be taken into consideration:
– Tax rates for obscenely rich Americans:
How on earth anybody can possibly justify that any individual earns a yearly income of more than (let us generously say) 1 million USD, while good people starve on the streets should be beyond any decent human being’s grasp. According to Americans For Tax Fairness, the richest 1% of the American population effectively paid a federal income tax rate of 24.7%, whereas somebody with a salary of 75.000USD paid a tax rate of 19.7%. It should be obvious that a fair tax system would do this slightly different. Raising the tax rate for the richest to at least 50% should already bring in enough tax dollars to cover most of the additional education cost of a free-tuition system. And no, thinking this way does not make everybody automatically a “socialist” (which has always been the greatest of American “arguments” :P).
– Lopsided federal budget:
Looking at the way how the current U.S. administration spends federal tax dollars, the money is distributed as follows: 25% for medical healthcare programs, 24% on social security, 16% on military and defense budget, … a mere 3% on education (according to www.cbpp.org). While it is understandable that a good deal of the taxpayers’ dollars is spent on healthcare and social security (even though it would deserve an investigation in its own right why the cost for healthcare and social security is so high), one has to wonder why the U.S. government spends a whopping 601 billion USD on the military, while the educational sector has to live with a mere fraction of that. Disregarding the fact that it would serve the U.S. well not always to be the police of the world (which has caused plenty of problems in the past and present), it would certainly not pose a problem to cut the budget of military and defense down to 10% and to increase the education budget accordingly up to 9%. Again, this should free more than enough money to cover for a tuition-free program for all.
– Cost explosion of administrative structures at colleges:
According to a recent study of Forbes, a major reason why college education has become so expensive over the course of the last 20 years is that the administrative apparatus at colleges is completely out of proportion. The study shows that though the increase in student enrollment over the last 20 years has been merely at approximately 80%, the number of administrators and managers has grown unproportionally to it at a rate of roundabout 260%! That means for every new enrolled student, more than three new administrators were employed! Trimming down this out-of-control administrative monster should make tertiary education significantly cheaper, thus reducing the overall cost that has to be shouldered by society as a whole.
Of course none of this will ever happen. But would a free college education for everyone in the U.S. be possible? Yes, without the shred of a doubt!