Category: Education

American Education: The Cost of the Conveyor Belt

Spring semester has ended at school. A full four months of a grueling and rugged schedule of class, homework, reading, writing, class, work, more homework, more reading, more writing, and finally test taking. My apologies to my loved ones for dealing with my stress and/or physical and mental absence from anything socially related. I just didn’t have the time. And in some ways, even now that the semester is done, I still don’t.

My time so far as an undergrad at the University of South Florida has been well spent with some few caveats in regards to the current state of of our education system and its moral funding of a certain ideology: capitalism. But wait, isn’t capitalism an economic system where capital is privately owned, invested, and distributed according to supply and demand? Yes, it is. It is also a way of living, it has its own set of standards and practices, some of which are arguably unbreakable in the eyes of their followers.

The rigidity of capitalist ideology is widely accepted as sacrosanct. For a system that encourages drawing outside of the lines to encourage creativity to produce a higher market value for commodities it sure likes to dictate where those lines should begin and end. Far be it for me to wax poetic on the pitfalls of society from an economic point of view where scarcity tries to get solved with more scarcity, I mean, I’m not perfect either. In this rigid world, where the powers that be like to hide that rigidity with words like “freedom” and “liberty”, the tenets of neoclassical capitalism dictate that I am an economic actor that makes rational decisions according to my needs and wants. But is accumulating private debt considered rational or does it even make one truly free? Most people say no, yet that is what myself and most other students must do now to receive a degree.

Karl Marx pointed out that capitalism is its own destructor, that it creates its demise by simply existing and that it would inevitably lead to Socialism and genuine Communism. So why hasn’t that happened yet? Any student of Marx (myself included) will tell you that the 20th century experiment in Communism wasn’t really genuine Communism at all. At least not in the way Marx envisioned it to be, which is at best a bit blurry. But I think we can all see Marx’s theories of worker alienation and exploitation quite clearly. The fact is that this exploitation extends outward into every institution of society. And none so crystal clear as our current education system, the way we pay for it, and what it gives back.

Cost has undoubtedly been going up year after year and with that the amount of loans used to pay for the hikes in tuition, room and board, and other expenses connected to getting a higher education. According to the Center For American Progress:

In the past three decades, the cost of attaining a college degree has increased more than 1,000 percent. Two-thirds of students who earn four-year bachelor’s degrees are graduating with an average student loan debt of more than $25,000, and 1 in 10 borrowers now owe more than $54,000 in loans.

African American and Latino students are especially saddled with student debt, with 81 percent of African American students and 67 percent of Latino students who earned bachelor’s degrees leaving school with debt. This compares to 64 percent of white students who graduate with debt. With $864 billion in federal loans and $150 billion in private loans, student debt in America now exceeds $1 trillion.

Wow. And that’s only one sector of debt held by the public. It’s something David Graeber and Steve Keen have continuously warned us about.

Of course this may change in time with recent public/private partnerships being formed for MOOCs. True, it’s good for more technical degrees, but I remain skeptical about what is taught to future students on a larger scale in the realm of public policy and economics. What my experience in the public education system has been so far is a conveyor belt system meant to pump in a certain block of accepted knowledge without any wiggle room to fit dissenting opinion – political, economic, or otherwise. It is meant to keep in place a class structure where only the wealthiest among us get to enjoy higher education, while at the same time stifling the pay of adjunct professors and other professionals alike.

Economists and politicians have stated that the US has become a service-industry economy, that our future lies in churning out engineering and computer science students to stay competitive in the world market. But what about the arts and humanities majors? What about the English and literature majors? It has become harder and harder for a post-graduate student to find work in their field of study and if they do their wages are one of pittance. The idea of “worker as a commodity” becomes reality as adjunct staff are marginalized for the public university to survive the cuts in funding from their respective state. It is another example of the privatization of public institutions for fear of over-reaching, centralized state control.

Something I’d like to ask my Libertarian friends out there: Isn’t a corporate state just as pernicious?

The CBO declared in a report detailing a 10-year fiscal projection that the government will rake in a $51 billion profit from student loans this year which, according to Shahien Nasiripour at Huffington Post, is well above some of the largest corporate profits for the year.

Exxon Mobil Corp., the nation’s most profitable company, reported $44.9 billion in net income last year. Apple Inc. recorded a $41.7 billion profit in its 2012 fiscal year, which ended in September, while Chevron Corp. reported $26.2 billion in earnings last year. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo reported a combined $51.9 billion in profit last year.

Quite astonishing. It’s as if it’s the housing bubble all over again except this time instead of the government handing over the reigns of sub-prime mortgage revenues to private hands, it has found a way to plug in to suckle more money out of the public without the need of a middleman. Sure, a graduate can defer and even lower their payments according to their income (or lack thereof) via the Pay As You Earn program, but that does not mean interest stops accumulating.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a bill in Congress to lower the interest rate of Stafford Loans to 0.75%, the same as what bigger banks currently pay, but that rate would only last for one year and it’s doubtful her bill could even muster the support in Congress to pass. As it is interest rates are set to double in July if Congress can’t agree to cap it at the current rate of 3.4%. I think all of us have noticed recently that even when 90% of the public agrees on something our elected representatives still have control on what gets done.

It seems that what we are given as students does not equal the amount of money we are paying. Yes, as a college graduate you are more likely to find a job, but again it depends on what your degree is in. A few weekends ago a family member gave me the typical “American Dream” spiel: “Get good grades in school and you’ll get a good job.” Sure, but good grades in which field of study? This family member told me to “do what makes you happy”, okay, what if a concentration in the liberal arts is what makes me happy, what then? The only professions out there for liberal arts majors are those that need a graduate degree, which is, yet again, the problem of paying too high a cost for very little return.

To conclude I will reiterate that receiving a higher education in America is becoming more and more a sign of affluence than something that is guaranteed to all citizens whether they are from higher or lower income families. But without the jobs what good is an education? It is a compound problem that I fear will take something like what was seen recently in Chile or Canada to really solve. Direct action is needed and until then students, whether they be younger and fresh from high school, or older and trying to reeducate themselves in a shifting economic paradigm, will suffer the consequences of an elite class taking over the decisions of who gets what in the world.