The High Cost of Higher Education
By Grace Lee Boggs
At Oakland University’s commencement ceremony on April 28, I was awarded the degree of Doctor of Humanities Honoris Causa “as a distinguished political activist, agent of social change, writer and speaker” who “has had a lasting, positive impact on communities in the Detroit metropolitan region.”
I thank Oakland University and everyone involved in awarding me this honor.
But, as I sat in my wheelchair on the stage at the Meadowbrook Theatre and watched hundreds of graduates march across it to receive diplomas and shake hands with their professors and OU President Gary Russi, I couldn’t help wondering whether I’ve become a player in the system which in the last few decades has financed the explosive growth of student and faculty bodies and university buildings.
Writer-activist Rebecca Solnit calls it the debt peonage system:
“…. The young are constantly told that only a college education can give them a decent future. Then they’re told that, to pay for it, they need to go into debt — usually into five figures, sometimes well into six. And these debts are, in turn, governed by special laws that don’t allow you to declare bankruptcy — no matter what. In other words, they are guaranteed to follow you all your life.
“One of my close friends wept when her husband began to earn enough money to pay off her $45,000 loan, structured so that it looked like she would continue to pay interest on it for the rest of her life; not so dissimilar, that is, from the debts sharecroppers and workers in company towns used to incur.
“…we’re creating a new generation of debt peonage. And my friend is not the worst case by far. Early in the Occupy Wall Street moment, she told me, someone arrived at Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan with markers and cardboard on which participants were to write their debt. What shocked her was how many of the occupiers in their early twenties were already carrying huge debt burdens.
“According to the website for Occupy Student Debt, 36,000,000 Americans have student debts. These have increased more than fivefold since 1999, creating a debt load that’s approaching a trillion dollars, with students borrowing $96 billion more every year to pay for their educations. Two-thirds of college students find themselves in this trap nowadays. As commentator Malcolm Harris put it in N + 1 magazine:
“‘Since 1978, the price of tuition at U.S. colleges has increased over 900%, 650 points above inflation. To put that number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the U.S. economy, then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But… wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.
“‘About a third are already in default. You can only hope that this bubble will burst in a wildcat strike against student debt, and if we’re lucky, a move to force tuition lower and have a debt jubilee.
”Getting an education to make your way out of poverty and maybe expand your mind is becoming another way of being trapped forever in poverty.”
That’s why I wish OWS activists had gone beyond militancy on May Day to show and/or encourage all of us to imagine better ways for young people to get an education and expand their minds.