American Studies Association Conference Presentation 2013

As the theme of this conference shows, debt is on the minds of the populace. From the housing crisis to the national deficit to student loan debt surpassing credit card debt everyone is thinking about debt. The numbers are big and the consequences are scary – mostly for those who are not already wealthy. For me, my interest lies in the reproduction of indebtedness through higher education. That is, not only do individuals go into debt because of higher education, they expect a certain level of indebtedness because of it. Like the name of this conference, there is a logic of debt that is promoted through media, policy, and in academic research. The crisis that has become so familiar to our economic and political history is bound to a logic of indebtedness with which consumers are disciplined and wealth is accumulated.

Frankly, it is not unusual for credit and debt to be on the minds of those within capitalist economies and it is not the first time. For example[1] Karl Marx, explored the role of credit and consequent debt in Capital: Volume III arguing that credit allowed merchants to extend themselves beyond their actual returns. But the credit system intimately ties the mechanisms of capitalist production and accumulation to crisis. Capitalism relies on an infinite growth model: each year businesses need to make more profits than they did the last. The only way to continue that level of growth is through artificial methods. And, when capitalists do not meet their quotas, do not make those record profits, and the bills are due, we witness the, “attendant collapse of the credit system,” which “leads to violent and acute crises, to sudden and forcible depreciations, to the actual stagnation and disruption of reproduction, and thus to a real falling off in reproduction” (Marx, Volume III, Chapter 15, Section 3). Marx even goes on to suggest that “business always appears almost excessively sound right on the eve of a crash” (Marx, Vol. III, Chap. 30). Published over a hundred years ago, these words are very apropos.

Regardless of the long history of credit systems and the familiarity of capitalist crisis, it is a unique experience to live through a moment of crisis. It is qualitatively different when the mundane everyday occurrence of lending and borrowing on both an individual and state level stops and the cycles of capitalist accumulation and spending retreat. And here we are, living out the day-to-day impact of that crisis, of crises before it, and of a system that strives to achieve profits over everything else. In scales unheard of since before The Great Depression wage and income disparity is rampant.

The Congressional Budget Office in a 2011 report found that the top one percent saw the greatest income growth at 275% between 1979 and 2007. A recent analysis of Internal Revenue Service’s data shows that the top one percent collected a record 19.2% of household income in 2012. There are plenty of other sources to quote but I will just leave it at: the rich are getting richer and everyone else is getting poorer. The recent outpouring of resentment against the rich is fitting but it is not enough: Walmart, who boasts incredible profit margins is organizing food drives for its workers; fund managers are worried about the widening gap between the haves and have-nots; and all the meanwhile corporations like Boeing are cashing in on huge tax breaks, making record profits, and freezing their workers’ pensions.

If one is cognizant of these crises and growing disparities, then it is appropriate to seek methods of preparedness: higher education is one such method. In order to do well for oneself, to be prepared for the next crisis, to be better off than those who have come before you, you get a degree. This is the familiar but not immutable American Dream: the promise of social mobility. And yet, achieving that dream has become harder and harder. Moreover, the familiar narrative of the American Dream struggles through layers of redefinition: now, according to new polls the New American Dream may just to be “debt-free.” Gone are the days of a house and 2.5 kids, a car, and well paying job. And truly, those days have been gone for a long time.

So if the question regarding higher education is: if the costs are so high and the debts are so serious, why does anyone go to college? In light of the growing income disparity the answer seems obvious. Without a degree how would someone get a well-paying job? The answer is second nature, a story or an admonition heard countless times: with a college degree one can get a good job, experience less unemployment, and earn more over a lifetime. Those with higher education degrees live longer, are happier, have thicker hair, and on and on go the statistics. Higher education is the quintessential cure-all for income disparity, the ultimate elixir for social mobility. In the United States public education is touted as a great equalizer and, as Christopher Newfield argues in Unmaking the Public University, higher education specifically bears the legacy of producing and maintaining the middle class. Newfield argues that public research universities helped produce an educated, highly skilled middle class that experienced and expected better occupational trajectories. But interestingly, Newfield starts his manuscript with crisis, explaining to the reader that the crisis so long familiar to capitalism on the outside had come to the academy saying that, “By 2005 or so, it had become impossible to ignore the sense of crisis that hung over the American college and university. It had become hard to see higher education in terms other than crisis, and harder to capture its situation in other than crisis terms” (2008, 19).

But Robert Samuels in his recent book Why Public Higher Education Should be Free argues that the quality of instruction has denigrated as universities focus more and more on profit in response to this financial crisis. That is, the methods that universities use to generate profit are not those that guarantee rigorous and high quality undergraduate instruction. He also shows that higher education through the accrual of debt is contributing to greater and greater socio-economic disparities. So he muses, “It is unclear why more students do not protest the fact that as they pay more for a shortchanged education, they commit themselves to a life of debt” (128).” It would be obviously inaccurate to say that there has been no protest in the United States against student debt, especially as the Rolling Jubilee campaign just passed 15$ million in loans paid off. But for me, the war is not over until we stop the reproduction of indebtedness. Paying back bad debts or improving repayment plans is helpful but it does nothing to stop the steady flow of prospective students who still abide by an ethereal American Dream.

So the answer to why we go to college is obvious, but why we agree to debt is less so. More to the point is why do students and guardians continue to agree to debt for higher education? Again, this is specific to those who pursue higher education; mechanisms of attrition and prohibitive factors are already in place by the time we get to college. It is safe to say that the narrative of success, the promise of social mobility embedded within higher education, acts to justify the cost of education with the anticipated return on investment in the future. Marketplace Money recently had a month long focus on higher education. In one radio segment three professionals were asked to give advice on the value on higher education. The first speaker, David Leonhardt, the Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, argues that despite the fact that higher education costs have increased faster than the rate of inflation, college is still “worth it.” He explains that college affordability is maintained because financial aid has grown with costs – even if it has done so with loans. More to the point he argues that $28,000 in debt is not a terrible cost to pay over a lifetime for someone with a college degree because they will have increased earnings and less unemployment over a lifetime. But Derek Price’s (2004) research shows that not all colleges, degrees, and outcomes are equivalent. Leonhardt assumes a particular audience, one that pursues four year degrees. But a student who is concerned with the significant cost of a selective school may choose to attend a less competitive two year institution. And, that student may not accrue the same dollar amount of debt as someone who went to a four year school but their debt burden will be significantly. Not only will their degree not warrant a better paying job, Price shows that low income graduates and graduates of color earn less for the same degree. I think here is the perfect moment to say explicitly that not all debts are created equally. And for someone to argue that “college is still worth it” can effectively obscure those very important differences along lines of race, class, gender.

Now, you could say that David Leonhardt is just a mouthpiece, spreading a popular conception for a mainstream publication whose audience wants to hear. But his argument that college is still well worth the investment is common in academic and policy circles. The Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University published a report in August 2012 titled “The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm.” In it the authors conclude that, “For students and their parents who are contemplating whether higher education is a good value, [their] findings make clear that the answer is a resounding yes (35).”  They find that unemployment rate for college graduates is much lower than those with just a high school diploma. However, they like others, seemingly gloss over the fact that “recent graduates” are having a harder time finding jobs and that recent graduates are often underemployed. What I want to challenge is the argument that permeates media, academic research, and policy design that college, through debt, is still worth it. Leonhardt, in his carefully calculated advice contributes to a logic of indebtedness and fosters socio-economic disparities through debt.

Through a logic of indebtedness students and guardians are mortgaging their future on the costs of education today because all around them they hear, “It’s still worth it.” Robert Meister in his article “Debt and Taxes” argues that with only the top one percent seeing any income gains in the last few decades, a higher education degree is no insurance against a rising income gap between graduates and non-graduates (2011, 129)[2]. I think even worse than hearing that “college is still worth it,” “it” being the massive amounts of personal and irreversible debt, is that there is no singular coherent opposition to indebtedness. And while the work of movements such as Rolling Jubilee are important in building awareness around secondary debt markets, the premise of indebtedness is maintained. It is more than just the paying off of defaulted debt maintains the market, but that the Rolling Jubilee is not positioned to dissuade new individuals from taking on new debt. Understandably that is not the job of Rolling Jubilee but the parasitic adaptability of capitalism will undermine the material impact of this organized movement. The entrepreneurial spirit captured in Marketplace Money articles such as “Hey Occupy Wall Street!  Will you buy my debt?” captures the imaginings of a populace under duress, hoping to win the lottery, and distracts them away from protesting structural injustice. To be clear it is not Rolling Jubilee that does a sleight of hand, but mainstream media’s interpretive response to Rolling Jubillee, which undermines the collective and inspires the individual.

An education is certainly worth it: it is worth the time and energy to learn and explore and to become more participatory humans, let alone citizens. But a higher education degree through significant debt is not worth it. The system is rigged in favor of those who would make money off of your hopes and dreams. So in fact higher education through any debt is not worth it. And that’s why it is important to clear the smoke and break the mirrors.

It is not just that school should be affordable. It is not just that public higher education should be free. All education should be free. And only then will it actually be worth it.

[1] Alternate example, David Graeber (2011) suggests that credit/debt systems have been around for 5,000 years, preceding a monetary system. It was only when debts could not be repaid through trade, such as in times of war and occupation, that a currency was introduced.

[2] And with a mal-employment rate of 36% amongst recent graduates, with record breaking debt loads, the materiality of debt is maintained.

Reblogged from OUR TIME