For several years there has been endless media coverage, political debate, and societal reflection on the rising cost of tuition, student debt, and the state of higher education. Despite hundreds of articles, numerous references in speeches, and an over saturation that would make Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian jealous, little has been done to curb rising tuition costs and the burden of student loans in an environment of shrinking job opportunities and declining wages.
These are real issues that don’t need hyperbolic historic comparisons:
The roughly two-thirds of U.S. students who take out loans to finance their college education can end up in a situation most resembling the historical concept of indenture. In medieval times, peasants would sign deeds to work land, which would then get cut in a jagged line (looking like teeth, or “dentures”). Each party would get half, and rejoining them would prove the authenticity of the contract. Colonial indentures would trade years of labor for the opportunity of transportation to the New World. The indentured could not alter the terms of the contract, no matter their circumstances. One way or another, the debt would get paid.
Erasing the racial history of indentured servants, not too mention the post-slavery realities faced by sharecroppers, these sorts of comparisons are not accurate. Students are saddled by debt constraining options and choices; indentured servants had no options, forced to work for their “master” to pay off “their master.” The differences are immense and they matter given that today’s extensive conversation about student debt, about rising tuition costs, and the future opportunities of millennials erases the very communities — the poor, people of color – who have historically been related to the class of indentured servants.
This discourse surrounding student debt also treats also students the same, at least within particular classed communities. The narrative that emerges is one of “young people’ or millennials being saddled with debt. Never mind race and its impact. According to Sophia Kelley:
Today’s average college graduate holds $26,600 in debt when he or she graduates, and the numbers for borrowers of color are more severe. A 2010 study by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center found that 27 percent of black bachelor’s degree recipients had student-loan debt of $30,500 or more, compared to just 16 percent of their white counterparts. Additionally, 69 percent of black students who did not finish their college degree cite the high cost of tuition, compared to 43 percent of their white peers.
Higher tuition costs, dwindling scholarship opportunities, and growing levels of debt do not impact all students equally. Race matters and we must begin to look at the realities on the ground. We must push the conversation to make clear that neither the degree nor the debt colorblind.
We surely need to have conversations (and policy interventions) regarding student debt and rising but also those who have been left behind because of zero tolerance policies, school closures, and most children left behind. The charter school industry and the testing culture have saddled youth of color, pushing them out of scholar rather than toward higher education. We need to have a conversation about those students, who because of persistent inequality and the impacts of the recession on wealth caps, have been priced out of higher education. How many children, either because of school closures or the eradication of programs as a result of the sequester will never have a chance to take out numerous loans to go to college? How many young people will be indebted, stuck, and saddled because they will not have a shot to go to college? Focusing just on tuition and debt erases the many students who are left behind long before college. What about the myriad of obstacles crisis that proceed graduating college with debt, that not only forms the school to prison pipeline or the fast track to low-wage, no mobility McJobs.
The ubiquity of media and political discourse around tuition and student loan debt yet again privileges the middle-class and white America, seemingly accepting that those who are not in college are not worthy of public outrage. It is not just college students who are saddled by debt; it is not just college students that are impacted by neoliberalism. With out outrage surrounding student debt and tuition, lets not leave these students behind yet again.