The vitriol that’s now spewing from the conservative right towards people with student debt is just the latest in their +50-year war against public and higher education, rooted in bitterness over Brown v. Board of Education. It gained traction when Ronald Reagan was governor of California in the 1960s. Back then, the state’s public university system was essentially free for its residents to attend. And probably the finest public school system in the country. But UC Berkeley and other state schools were becoming a haven for young liberals and the epicenter of Viet Nam War protest.
Reagan’s first act as Governor in 1967 was to eliminate free tuition, make 20% across-the-board cuts in funding, stop all construction projects, and proclaim that the state “should not subsidize intellectual curiosity.”
Reagan called protesting students “brats,” “freaks,” and “cowardly fascists.” And when it came to restoring order on unruly campuses he reportedly said “…if it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with… no more appeasement!”
Just days after making those comments, four Kent State students were shot to death in Ohio during a protest rally. Afterward, facing national criticism, Reagan said his remarks were only a “figure of speech.”
In May 1970, Reagan actually shut down all 28 UC and Cal State campuses as a result of student protests against the US bombing of Cambodia. His education adviser at the time, Roger A. Freeman, infamously warned “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat. That’s dynamite! We have to be selective on who we allow to go to college,” as quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle article.
Ronald Regan took those same ideas with him to the White House in the 1980s.
Since then, the conservative right has been advocating abolishing the Department of Education in favor of privatizing and segregating education by race and class. They go out of their way to demonize and demoralize teachers, ban books, take over local boards of education, slash funding whenever possible, and elevate the likes of Betsy DeVos to Secretary of Education.
They use ignorance as a weapon and benefit when people cannot use critical thinking to evaluate sources. They need the uninformed to follow with blind faith and toxic nationalism, the makings of good soldiers. They believe the highly educated, who they mock as “intellectual elites,” tend to be more liberal and open-minded, which is the antidote to the fascism they’re peddling. You’ll also notice them mocking people who get degrees in the humanities and repeating the stereotypes and lies about job prospects for English, History, Art, etc. majors. They resent anyone who has tools to resist their narrative, and scoff at “academia” as if the term were an insult.
While I am not so naïve as to believe that education automatically makes people more humane and open-minded or that we can educate our way out of racism, sexism, and classism, the right has made education a battleground, and proponents of public education and critical thinking and intellectual curiosity and humanities and academia need to keep fighting back.
The right weaponizes ignorance and fears the educated. Meanwhile, the sheep post “woke” memes for lack of anything substantive. It’s all in the playbook.
A brief overview:
The US abandoned a government-run, revenue-neutral student loan program that was working well and largely privatized it — allowing interest rates to rise like credit cards.
We hiked the cost of public education exponentially by withdrawing public support, resulting in tuition increases to compensate.
We slapped “bachelor’s degree required” on almost every entry-level job.
Our teenagers took out loans from predatory lenders and got into debt.
We refused to make this debt subject to bankruptcy like every other debt.
After graduating, we mocked millennials for living at home, for not buying houses, and for not starting families while they carried this debt.
When big banks tanked the economy, we bailed them out. And we bailed out the automakers.
Then a president ran on the promise of forgiving student loan debt and was overwhelmingly elected. When he got around to doing it, it was a modest sum aimed at people with the fewest resources.
Note: regardless of what you’re hearing from right-wing media, no one’s taxes will increase because of this plan unless you make over $400K/year.
Now, people who got millions in PPP loans forgiven, score-settlers who think everybody has to suffer because they did, and no doubt some racists who don’t like any public money going to POC have lost their minds.
Ain’t that America!?
Our country’s federal student loan program has been a disaster. The student loan companies have been empowered by Congress for decades to alter and alter again the terms of repayment and interest rates. So an 18 or 19 year old who needed a loan to attend college back in 1994 or 2004 or even 2014 is facing a different loan than they entered because income-based repayment plans are based on previous year’s taxable income, with payments calculated by the loan company which almost never cover interest due. Most of these loans get revalued higher each month because of compounded interest they get to add to the principle of the loan. And the next month it gets worse. And so on.
Former college students — graduates — who have been paying student loans on time for years and decades owe more than they did when they started. This is NOT the case for car loans or home mortgages (anymore) or small business loans or any other loan you keep comparing them to.
Our Congress has allowed student loan companies to rob people for years, and the same people telling minimum wage earners to “work their way through school to better themselves if they want to make more money” now blame the same young adults, calling them lazy and entitled kids who are taking handouts and don’t want to pay back what they borrowed. They have been trying. They have been paying. Paycheck to paycheck. The loan companies have been pocketing that money while Congress protects them. Higher education should be an asset to our youth not a lifelong burden imposed by profiteering C-corporations netting billions each year on the backs of former college students.
If you attended when college was astronomically cheaper, great. If you attended at a time when Pell grants covered most of the cost of tuition instead of the small fraction they cover now, wonderful. If were able to pay off the loans you received, congratulations. Not one bit of that has a single thing to do with relief granted to thousands of lower-income people who attended college and need the help. This will make a big difference to many people. Chill.