Who wins in education: students or the banks?

Everybody talks about the need for higher education, especially how it’s supposed to bring graduates higher paying jobs. But is this just a come-on designed to redistribute wealth from the middle class to the banks?

A college-level education helps people acquire the knowledge needed to establish themselves in careers that advance human society. They might even earn an income adequate enough to sustain themselves and their families.

Higher education also has the power to open up students’ minds, exciting and challenging them to participate actively and knowledgeably in our democratic society. Their reasoned, thoughtful opinions will translate into policies that can help our nation better serve the global community.

In his book “Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free,” Robert Samuels of the University of California reveals two pivotal issues demanding our attention – how we pay for the ever-increasing costs of college and university education, and if students attending these schools are getting their money’s worth.

Samuels said how we pay for education reveals the true value we place on it. The costs of tuition, fees, room and board at public universities have doubled in the last twenty years. Now add in the debilitating effects of middle-class wage stagnation over the past forty years. We also see a market-driven Congress cutting scholarships while raising rates on student loans. We’ve been forced to turn our students over to the banks to acquire a college education.

The banks are making huge profits on both students and the schools they attend. As costs have risen, state and federal funding for higher education has dwindled, forcing colleges and universities to take on massive debt. The bankers advise them to be more “market-oriented,” building the high-quality, expensive, living and dining amenities students say they want, not facilities suitable for achieving excellence in education.

Unfortunately, Samuels said, our students are not doing so well. Graduation rates are falling. High costs mean decreasing enrollment. Many students take six or more years to complete their degrees. Some have to attend for-profit private schools, where the graduation rate may be as low as 10 percent. Struggling under a mound of debt, some students drop out early, while many who do graduate fail to earn enough in their first years of employment to repay their loans.

Private enterprise prefers to view basic human needs like knowledge, health and justice as commodities rather than critical elements of life for everyone. As market values invade education, school administrators care more about “profits” and “return-on-investment” than on giving our
students the education they need and deserve.

Deceptive ideas about “meritocracy” play a part here. The best and brightest, and those who can pay the most, are given priority – everyone else can look out for themselves. That makes for poorer educational outcomes, and violates democratic values of equality and freedom of choice. Everyone must be allowed to enjoy the highest educational benefit available. Comparing life in a democracy to a battle or a football game, with “winners” and “losers,” cheapens and demeans it.

We need new tactics. Let’s refocus on education, not the markets or the popularity of our institutions. We must free our students from the debt machine. Scholarships and grants are preferable to higher levels of debt.

We should also consider using the taxing power of government and distribute a far greater portion of our national wealth toward helping students get the education they need and deserve.
Otherwise, we further weaken our democracy and ruin the middle-class way of life that sustains it.
When the banks win, students lose.


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