Americans have a strange attitude toward education. On the one hand, we all know that a college degree can significantly increase one’s life chances for achieving, until recently, a middleclass income and a comfortable “lifestyle.” On the other hand, college has become very expensive, as well as intimidating for anyone who has experienced a typical rag-tag urban or rural school-district high school education. Therein lies the personal dilemma.
A societal dilemma may be equally important. But pretense and illusion prevent its discussion in polite company. Education in the U.S.A. has gradually become a second-class institution. Politicians are unwilling to foot the bill for maintaining public higher education at the world-class level that characterized our colleges and universities in the 1950s. Growing costs and dwindling public support forced universities to raise tuition and seek research contracts from corporations and government. The nation’s seats of knowledge and discovery became businesses purveying information to whatever special interest paid the price.
Halcyon Days of Higher Education
In the early 1960s, I was able to gain a degree from the University of California because I had worked each high-school summer as a construction laborer (at union scale of $3.50 per hour at the time when my friends got 90₵ at the local gas station). I felt pretty flush. In those days, simple manual labor at a union wage allowed a worker to rent an apartment or very small house in Los Angeles and live comfortably without most non-essential “consumer products.”
In the 1950s in Southern California, a (white) high-school graduate could get an entry-level job at an aerospace company, rent a small apartment, buy a car, and party. As a high-school student living at home in 1955, I was able to save enough to buy a scruffy ’51 Ford in my sophomore year, and transform it into a respectable “hot rod” by my senior year. At the same time, I saved money for college. Well, those were the “good old days.”
Rather than accepting the middle management job my father encouraged me to apply for on graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara, I went off to graduate school, following my curiosity. I worked as a research assistant, then received a National Science Foundation fellowship, partly because the U.S. realized that the Soviets were moving into space full speed ahead with their “Sputnik” satellite while we had failed to support science education.
In 1970, PhD in hand, I began a career as a professor, then for 35-years I watched from the inide as the California higher education system slide from globally top tier to mid-level mediocrity. Politicians excused the decline in the name of anti-pubic-sector cost cutting and resentment over the moral rebellion of university students of the 1960s.
Conversion of a Societal Asset into Personal Debt
Today, elites and their media mouthpieces treat education as no more than a means to an end. Little or no interest remains in developing the individual and her/his intellectual and moral capacities as a citizen. Higher education became so costly because of the privatization of its finance. Politicians promote the twisted view that its only value was to “train” skilled workers as functionaries in the industrial-consumer economy, even as jobs were automated and outsourced.
Students are “sold” degrees on credit. Privatized student debt has become, just like the private prison business, a huge profit-center for the nation’s financial elite. What should have become an asset for the educated citizen is an extended burden of personal debt constraining civic participation. The neoliberal economy of growth has fully subsumed society and human values beneath its quest for profit.
In that context, it is hardly surprising that the elites who control most institutions along with the economy no longer see the education of the person as an asset to society. Frankly, they don’t give a hoot about the society or its people. Rather, they much prefer to treat education as a commodity for sale and encouraging debt as another profit center. The result is a massive collective student debt that now burdens what might have been our future middleclass. As broad citizen education falters, the backbone of democracy is lost.