Higher Education Platform

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Take, Remake, Liberate: A Higher Education Platform[edit]

Take: Evict student debt from our lives

  1. Discharge all outstanding student loans-public and private
  2. Give those who attended subprime colleges refunds of all amounts paid and a second chance at education

Remake: Change the System

  1. Make public colleges 100% tuition free
  2. Make living expenses affordable
  3. Shut down for-profit colleges
  4. Reduce inequality-reproducing admission practices
  5. Equalize per-student funding

Liberate: Reimagine the Role of Higher Education in Social Life

  1. Towards a new role for private colleges
  2. Towards egalitarian admissions
  3. Towards a democratic society surrounding higher education


Preamble[edit]

Education should be funded as a public good, and everyone should be able to access a quality education without going into debt. Decades of funding cuts and tuition hikes have forced students to treat college as a high-cost gamble they hope results in a good job and a stable wage. In our increasingly unequal, winner-take-all economy, it often doesn't. Those whose degrees lead to well- paying careers are usually from already well-off families. The vast majority of borrowers are unable to make ends meet while making payments each month for an education that should have been free.

A higher education system that is based on individuals and families paying ever-higher prices is not normal or natural. The exploding cost of college is a result of successful collusion over the last thirty years between the interests of finance and the policies of state and federal governments to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. This austerity agenda, which means lower taxes for the wealthy and more debt for everyone else, has accelerated in recent years.\1\

The Debt Collective knows that those struggling under the burden of student debt can come together to demand change. Although debt is a burden for individuals, $1.4 trillion (and counting) in student debt is also a potential source of power that we can leverage to achieve debt cancellation and the establishment of schools that are tuition free. Starting in 2014, former for-profit college students tested this idea. Their coordinated actions, including the nation's first student debt strike, have so far resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in loan relief. This initial victory demonstrates that collective action by debtors works. The task is now to help grow a movement that is powerful enough to challenge the elite class's austerity agenda and to win a free and democratic system of higher education.

Our platform is based on two basic premises:

  1. our current higher education system reinforces inequality and undermines democracy;
  2. If we work together, we can create colleges and universities that promote democracy by encouraging all students to develop the capacities to think creatively and critically about the world and how to change it.

We recognize that there is a vast disparity in who gets access to quality schooling. Today, the children of the wealthy, who are disproportionately white, have the freedom to develop themselves and to explore the liberal arts and sciences on name-brand campuses while still looking forward to professional careers and lives of economic security. The prestigious and high-cost campuses they attend track them into a sheltered job market set aside for graduates of the most elite colleges. Children of the poor and working classes, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly tracked into over- priced and under-resourced colleges with narrow curricula geared to low-income occupations.

As a collective, we understand that our actions are part of a broader political struggle. While we fight for a free and equitable higher education system, we know that education alone cannot solve forms of oppression and exploitation based on race, class, gender, immigration status, sexuality, and physical and mental ability. Education is a fundamental right, but it can only be truly taken advantage of by all if everyone has access to basic needs, including housing, healthcare, and a sustainable income. Achieving this requires actions such as taxing the wealthy, a federal jobs guarantee, universal health care, reparations, a robust welfare system, and a minimum guaranteed income.

This platform is organized according to three principles: we must take back our lives and our education system from those who extract profit from us, remake higher education to serve everyone, and liberate ourselves and each other from a system that refuses to view us as full human beings.

Take: Evict student debt from our lives[edit]

1. Discharge all outstanding student loans-federal and private[edit]

For the last 40 years, millions of students and families have had to borrow ever-greater amounts to afford college. With total student debt now over $1.4 trillion, 8 million debtors in default, only about half of borrowers actively paying, and the burden falling most heavily on those who can least afford to pay, it is past time to rectify decades of failed policy.

We join the Movement 4 Black Lives\2\ and others in proposing that all outstanding student debt be cancelled. For federal student loans, this could be done through a direct Congressional enactment, but it could also be done by the Executive branch alone. The President could direct the Secretary of Education to use their settlement authority to immediately discharge the debts of all qualified borrowers.\3\ Congress already gave the U.S. Secretary of Education authority to write down or erase debts and nothing in current law restrains the Secretary from doing so for millions of people.

Private loans are a heavy burden on millions of families. Though they are a fraction of federal loans, such debts disproportionately affect those who can least afford to pay and come with fewer options for negotiating repayment. (Like federal student loans, private loans are extremely difficult to discharge in bankruptcy.) Congress should pass a law authorizing the Department of Education to purchase private student loans (at a steep discount). Then those debts would be treated as federal loans and discharged. Discharging private student loans would overwhelmingly benefit low-income borrowers and serve as a much-needed correction to a policy that has allowed private lenders to earn nearly risk-free profits from students and families.\4\

The above proposals for broad-based debt relief are the best way forward. We acknowledge the shortcomings of a policy of student debt jubilee. Except in a few cases, cancelling all outstanding student loans would not benefit those who have already paid. Some relatively well-off students, including those who attended graduate and professional schools, would receive benefits. These few weaknesses are more than outweighed by the benefits of a debt jubilee. Alternative proposals like income-based repayment, interest rate reductions, and bankruptcy eligibility fail to address the fact that no one should have to go into debt for education. A debt jubilee could also be part of a broader redistributive program that addresses longstanding racial disparities: black students are 25 percent more likely to have student debt, and they borrow over 10 percent more than white students on average.\5\ We should not pass up an opportunity to offer a clean slate to current debtors because some have already paid off their loans. Debt relief creates a decisive break with the past and all former, present and future students will benefit from living in a society that funds education as a public good.

2. Give those who attended subprime colleges refunds of all amounts paid and a second chance at education[edit]

Over the last two decades, for-profit colleges have grown faster than any other type of educational institution. They have siphoned tens of billions of dollars from public coffers as a result of regulatory policies that enable scam schools to transfer money from the poorest to the richest via the federal student loan system. A degree from a for-profit college costs far more, on average, than one from a non-profit school because high prices enrich the bankers, stockholders and private equity firms that own for-profit schools. Subprime schools also target students from historically disadvantaged populations, including low-income students and people of color. In fact, today, a for- profit institution is the number one producer of black college graduates.\6\

Thanks in part to organizing by Debt Collective members, many of these schools have collapsed, been sued, or are under investigation. A broad coalition of legal experts, policymakers and lawmakers now recognizes that fraudulent loans should be cancelled. But recognition has not yet translated into decisive action. The work ahead requires not only getting loan relief for defrauded students but also changing the conditions that gave rise to for-profit colleges in the first place.

We propose that any student who attended a for-profit college receive debt cancellation, a full refund of all payments, and renewed Pell grant and GI Bill eligibility under current law. Congress should pass a law to make it possible for law enforcement agencies to take back payments made to the executives and shareholders who profited from the scheme. By valuing shareholder revenue more than students and by preying on low-income students and people of color, for-profit colleges represent a shameful low point in a decades-long history of increasing college costs and mounting student debt. The only just response is to cancel the debts of those who have been scammed and give them the resources they need to re-enroll in a non-profit college.

Remake: Change the System[edit]

1. Make public colleges 100% tuition free[edit]

Public college was tuition free or low cost for most of the 20th century. It was only after masses of people, including people of color and members of the working class, began demanding access to higher education in the 1960s and 1970s that tuition became a fact of life. College has remained free or low cost in many countries around the world. We propose that the US return to a system of free public college, available to everyone this time. We all benefit from living in a nation with educated citizens. We reject a system that sells education as an individual "investment." Instead, a democratic society should ensure that all of its citizens have the opportunity to pursue education, regardless of their ability to pay.

We are not confused by misleading language favored by some politicians. Making college tuition free for all is superior to "debt-free" college proposals that would let colleges set their own prices and have the federal government provide coupons (sometimes called "vouchers") to lower-income students. Direct federal funding is superior to voucher funding for two reasons. First, means-tested programs are often hard to apply for, creating layers of paperwork for those already burdened by the bureaucracies of poverty. Such programs are also more likely to be underfunded, since low-income individuals and families are commonly ignored by elected officials. Public goods that serve everyone are more highly valued by the whole population and are therefore more likely to be fully funded over the long term. Once a universal benefit like free public college is established, it can be more easily targeted to the people who would benefit the most.

Second, higher education should be shielded from both partisan politics and the profit-driven values of the market. As elite public colleges have become more reliant on tuition, they have begun to recruit more wealthy students, rely more on wealthy donors, and take on debt backed by tuition.\7\ Publicly funded universities are more likely to be shielded from these imperatives and to provide a space for professors and students to engage in independent inquiry.

Abolishing tuition would shift the balance of financing dramatically from the states to the federal government, a shift that may be desirable in the medium to long-term. Federal taxes tend to be more progressive, and federal spending tends to be less constrained since the federal government is the only authority allowed to print its own currency. In the short term the federal government should require state governments to maintain current levels of funding as a condition of receiving additional federal funds for public colleges, as well as requiring those who have cut funding at especially dramatic rates in the past 30 years to renew their commitment to public higher education. Since state taxes to fund education have been cut, sometimes drastically, in recent years, communities must also fight for increased resources at the state level. But this battle is more easily won once the federal government renews its commitment to higher education as a public good.

Making public colleges tuition free and federally financed can only work if public institutions offer high-quality learning to all. This will require investing in full-time faculty as well as in students. It will require reversing the destructive trend of the past 40 years of replacing full-time faculty with over- worked and underpaid part-time teachers. Battles over resources often involve pitting students against faculty. This is a manufactured competition generated by elites' austerity agenda. The federal government should only fund colleges where at least 80% of faculty is tenured or tenure-track or where colleges have made a commitment to reach that goal within 10 years.

2. Make living expenses affordable[edit]

Tuition is only part of the cost of college attendance. Students must also finance housing, books, and living expenses. Since real wages have not risen in decades, the days of being able to pay for college by working part time or during the summer months are long gone. Today, many people do not enroll in college at all because they can't afford to do so. Many students are working multiple jobs, living with relatives, or are even homeless or food insecure. Everyone should be able to learn without the anxiety and distraction of insufficient money. The rising cost of living in an age of flat wages cuts off access to education. Today, the major reason college students drop out is economic not academic.

There are at least three ways to ensure that expenses do not prevent students from getting an education. First, increased funding for public universities could include enough money to subsidize the housing and living expenses of students who cannot afford them. Second, the federal government could set up a separate program that extends means-tested benefits to enrollees unable to make ends meet. Third, a broader universal stipend could serve to cover the needs of all students. Students should not be required to work to access this funding because such requirements disadvantage lower-income individuals who then have less time to study.

3. Shut down for-profit colleges.[edit]

For-profit colleges and universities are a failed experiment that redistributes income from taxpayers and students to wealthy corporations, executives and investors. Congress should pass a law that would immediately ban for-profit colleges from accessing federal funds. The Department of Education, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Department of Justice, and other enforcement agencies should also ramp up their enforcement efforts on those who are breaking existing laws. Although removing federal funding will greatly reduce the size of for-profit colleges, it will likely not eliminate them (after all, they existed before they received federal funding). Thus, close monitoring and decisive enforcement will be necessary to make sure that as few predatory schools as possible remain. Reform of the accreditation system and stricter state licensing laws could also help prevent subprime education.

4. Reduce inequality-reproducing admission practices[edit]

We call for an immediate end to legacy admissions practices that favor the children or relatives of wealthy donors and alumni. Many aspects of the current higher education system reproduce and deepen inequality, but this is the most egregious practice. Colleges will not stop doing it on their own. It should be banned-certainly at public universities, and, if possible, at private colleges as well.

5. Equalize per-student funding[edit]

We can't create a more equitable higher education system without addressing the concentration of resources in a few elite institutions that serve a fraction of students. There are approximately 60 institutions of higher education with endowments of over $1 billion. Harvard, Yale and Princeton have over $70 billion just between the three of them.\8\ In addition to concentrating resources at the colleges that already serve the most privileged members of society, such endowments serve as investment pools that earn large returns for their fund managers and as tax-free repositories for wealthy donors. We propose a tax be applied to endowment funds at the nation's richest colleges. The tax should be progressive, with tiers of taxation depending on the size of the endowment.

There are also deep inequalities within state public systems of higher education. Flagship research universities that serve students that come from more privileged backgrounds get more state funding per student, have a lower student-teacher class ratio and more square feet per campus, while the community colleges that serve students who need the most support subsist on shoestring budgets. Moreover, there are legitimate concerns that the elimination of tuition could exacerbate this problem by increasing competition for limited spots at newly free flagship institutions, pushing low-income students out. Public colleges should not be a scarce resource. Federal funding should be enough to allow for their expansion, not just their maintenance. As a condition of federal funding, states should be required to equalize per-student education spending at public institutions over the course of five years. Research grants should be shared across the university system with each campus able to access a portion of the grant. It is not enough for all public schools to be free. They must also have the resources to support the work of scholars and researchers and to provide a quality education to all.

Liberate: Reimagine the Role of Higher Education in Social Life[edit]

A quality and widely accessible education system is a necessary component of a free and democratic society. We all need the space to learn, to wrestle with complex problems, to engage openly with different perspectives and to reflect critically on our relationship to the natural world and to each other. We cannot be satisfied with only granting this opportunity to a few privileged elites. We cannot be satisfied when students feel they have to choose their major based on how quickly they'll be able to repay their debt. The idea of democracy requires providing individuals with opportunities to study and learn in whatever ways they choose while we work together to solve the problems that affect us all.

The reforms laid out in the previous sections are a first step towards a higher education system built on the foundation of equal freedom. In combination with other institutions that serve the public good, free public higher education can become a robust force for democratizing society at large. However, we cannot expect education to be truly democratic in a society riven with inequalities in wealth, in health, in power. And, of course, an equitable higher education system can only exist if it builds on an equitable K-12 education system. The policies proposed above expand the horizon of possibility. By committing to the idea that higher education is a public good, we open a conversation about how to make colleges and universities serve us all. By taking back our lives from lenders and reclaiming higher education as a right, we liberate ourselves to imagine together what might come next.

In the following section we outline some principles for what a libertory higher education system should strive for after the initial necessary reforms are made. This section is preliminary and we offer it as an invitation to others to dream and debate along with us.

1. Towards a New Role for Private Colleges[edit]

Public colleges currently educate 70% of students in the United States. It is likely that more students would attend public college if those institutions were tuition free. Ending tuition could push many private colleges to the brink of closure. The US has many well-established private colleges that create unique learning opportunities and innovative research environments that are worth preserving. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and certain religious institutions are prime examples. No doubt, some schools that could not survive without public subsidy should be allowed to fail, while some should continue to be subsidized. Some schools could be given a chance to "go public," or a special voucher program focused on particular types of institutions could fill the gap. Endowments could also be redistributed among private institutions. The goal should be to make private colleges part of a new, more democratic higher education system. The policy to get us there should be matter of public deliberation.

2. Towards egalitarian admissions[edit]

Prestigious public as well as private institutions are more likely to enroll students from wealthier families. In addition to equalizing resources across institutions, we also believe it is necessary to make admissions more egalitarian. As long as admissions practices overwhelmingly favor wealthier, white enrollees, diversity-focused affirmative action initiatives (where they are even legal) cannot provide transformative change. Admissions practices at public universities should be geared as much as possible toward providing a place for everyone who wants to attend while offering extra support and resources to students who have been historically excluded from the most privileged sites of teaching and learning.

The historical record supports the idea that open admissions can help create a more just society. In 1969, after sustained student protest at the City University of New York, the university instituted a policy of open admissions. Within a year, the student body doubled. Today, admissions at community colleges are typically inclusive. We believe this policy should be extended to four-year colleges and universities. One way to do this would be to centralize admissions to the university system or the entire state. Applicants would then be admitted to the system, not just a single campus. Applicants could express preferences or provide written explanations describing the need to live in a certain area or a desire to attend a school with a certain specialty. Students who aren't admitted to their top choice would still have the option to attend another school in the system or state. One important outcome of a centralized applications system is that students who don't think to apply to the top tier schools could be admitted to places they didn't expect, making admissions more egalitarian.

One of the barriers to more inclusive admissions practices is the game that colleges play to improve their ratings in publications like the US News and World Report. Colleges that admit students with better pre-college performance (i.e. overwhelmingly students from advantaged backgrounds) are ranked higher. The federal government cannot legislate away college rankings, but it can take action to make them less important. Eliminating tuition and equalizing resources across institutions is likely to encourage public colleges to recruit students from within their own regions. In general, the existence of free, well-funded, quality public institutions will reduce the current competition between elite institutions for wealthy students who can pay the highest prices.

3. Towards a democratic society surrounding higher education[edit]

A democratic higher education system requires a democratic K-12 education system. The proliferation of unaccountable charter schools and for-profit educational resource providers has turned existing inequalities into sources of wealth extraction for education entrepreneurs. Similarly, educational technology provided by for-profit companies is often a way to extract wealth from the public while providing non-elite students with a weak substitutes for real, quality education which happens in a classroom with other people and a qualified instructor. This wealth extraction happens at all levels of the educational system, from elementary school through college, where digital learning initiatives are too often spearheaded by private interests seeking profit or by administrators looking to cut costs. Online learning tools will only exacerbate inequalities under the current system and can only reach their full potential in truly egalitarian colleges and universities.

Although politicians commonly talk about college as a way for people to bootstrap their way out of poverty, college can only lead to well-paying jobs when there are well-paying jobs available. Making public college free will not change the fact that most workers have not seen a real wage increase in 40 years.\9\ Reengineering higher education to better serve students from poor and working-class backgrounds cannot improve people's economic condition by itself. Higher education will be truly liberatory only when it is part of a democratic society where people can access basic needs, including health care and housing, without going broke or going into debt.

Conclusion[edit]

If higher education is to be truly democratic, it cannot be treated in isolation. We must commit to developing and maintaining political and economic institutions that guarantee a minimum standard of living and a more equal distribution of the resources we all collaborate in producing. This platform outlines a series of policies that can help us take, remake and liberate our colleges and universities. It is also a promise that we will work with our allies to fight for a society where public higher education is but one in a series of institutions that serve us all.

The changes we propose in this text will not come easily. But many committed people are already fighting for them. From the students drowning in debt and organizing together to the Movement for Black Lives; from the Fight for 15 and DREAMers campaigns to the supporters of policies put forward by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, we are reaching a critical mass. As the Debt Collective, we offer this platform in the spirit of collaboration and as a commitment to our shared values. The fight will be long but the path is clear.

"But How Will You Pay for It?"[edit]

We already know what our critics will say in response to proposals to cancel debt and make public colleges tuition free: "how will you pay for it?" Sometimes those who want to understand how policy proposals translate into the wonky details of the federal budget ask the question earnestly. But mostly it is asked as a gotcha question: "don't you know that somebody has to pay for the things you're calling 'free'?" The implication is that those advocating for public services are naive and don't know how the world really works.

But those asking gotcha questions know (or should know) that the federal government does not have to balance its books like a household. They know that new spending does not automatically raise taxes. Suggestions to the contrary are political strategies for quieting demands for socially beneficial spending. They imply that only experts in federal and state tax policy have the right to comment on education policy. They attempt to make us think about public goods as scarce resources that must be rationed and competed over. We refuse to engage with such tricks.

We are not suggesting that there are no limits on how much the government can spend. When spending goes up too much without raising new revenues, it can cause inflation. But the United States is not currently at risk of inflation. And our country can't go broke because the government prints its own currency. We are nowhere near the point where we can reasonably say that our government is at risk of spending too much.

Still, we know that well-intentioned people are going to ask: how much would the proposals in your higher education platform cost? The best way to answer that question is to make a comparison between the programs we are pushing for and other parts of the federal budget. This helps demonstrate that "expensive" is a relative term.

In the case of student debt cancellation, outstanding public and private student loans are now around $1.4 trillion. Compare that, for instance, to the cost of the Iraq War, which, according to a recent estimate by economists and Brown University, is close to $3.6 trillion.\10\ How was the Iraq War funded? It was simply determined by the President and by Congress that the war was a priority. As citizens, we didn't have to add another zero onto our tax bills to pay for it because new spending does not require new revenues. Elites know this. In fact the federal government cut taxes soon after going into Iraq. The U.S. government has had a deficit for nearly its entire history. Both political parties have created policies that increase spending without increasing revenues-thus increasing the deficit. All the hand wringing over the cost of student debt relief and free college is ridiculous and unnecessary. When we have the political will to go to war or to offer tax breaks, questions about cost play a limited role. It is only when we talk about making life better for regular people that suddenly we are cautioned to worry about cost.

As for free public higher education, tuition at public colleges is currently around $75 billion per year. But that figure represents a gross total rather than the amount by which spending would need to increase. It includes many subsidies that would no longer be needed if our platform were enacted: money that goes to supporting for-profit colleges, to the Pell grant program, and to funding various tax incentives intended to help families finance college. Although the cost of higher education is likely to increase as more students attend college and if our proposals are enacted, we take $75 billion as a rough baseline. Such a cost would account for around 12% of the $646 billion of non-defense discretionary spending allocated in the 2016 budget.\11\ In other words, it would hardly make a dent.

For those who are still insistent that money spent on public services like education be diverted from somewhere else, there are plenty of options. Any of the war spending just discussed could be reduced and repurposed for education. In addition, tax evasion by the wealthy causes an estimated 18% of income to go unreported, and thus untaxed (a "tax gap" of $500 billion per year).\12\ Depending on how one counts them, tax breaks-which mostly benefit the wealthy-total in the hundreds of billions or the trillions each year.\13\ Proposals for new taxes like a financial transactions tax would raise hundreds of billions in revenue each year.\14\ Even under the (false) premise that public revenue can only come from taxing someone, the options for funding free higher education and debt cancellation are many. It is just a matter of political will.

The clearest case for our proposals is that free public college, debt relief, and democratic control of educational institutions and their resources would benefit everyone, especially those who have suffered the most under the current system of debt and austerity. The question is not 'where can we get the money to pay for it?'. It is: 'what do we need and want as a society so that people can live healthy and happy lives?' This is a question that most politicians and elected officials don't want the rest of us to ask because it takes away their power to pit us against each other. This platform is a rejection of that logic. We will not fight against our friends for scraps from the table. Instead, we will work with them to fight for a democratic system of higher education, one that serves us all at long last.

References[edit]

1 Oliff, Palacios, Johnson, Leachman. "Recent Deep State Higher Education Cuts May Harm Students and the Economy for Years to Come." Center on Budget Policy and Priorities. March 19, 2013, accessed October 10, 2016.

2 The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) Policy Platform, 2016.

3 20 U.S.C. §§ 1082(a)(5), (6) (on FFEL loans); 20 U.S.C. § 1087hh(2) (on Perkins loans); § 1087a(b)(2) (extending this power to Direct loans); 34 C.F.R. § 30.70(h) (the regulation pertaining to all of them).

4 A new market in private loans (with lenders such as SoFi) has recently emerged which allows private lenders to profit from students who attend the most elite colleges and who stand to earn the most after graduation.

5 Paul, Mark, Alan Aja, Darrick Hamilton, and William Darrity, Jr. "Making College Free Could Add a Million New Black and Latino Graduates," Dissent, March 21, 2016. Accessed October 24, 2016.

6 Cottom, Tressie. "Race, Gender, Credentialism." Tressiemc. October 21, 2014, accessed October 10, 2016.

7 Eaton, Charlie. Cyrus Dioun, Daniela Garcia Santibañez Godoy, Adam Goldstein, Jacob Habinek and Robert Osley-Thomas. "Borrowing against the Future: The Hidden Costs of Financing US Higher Education." Debt and Society. May 2014, accessed November 2016.

8 Susannah Snider. "10 Universities with the Largest Financial Endowments." Newsweek, January 13, 2015, accessed September 21, 2016.

9 Josh Bivens and Lawrence Mishel. "Understanding the Historic Divergence Between Productivity and a Typical Worker's Pay: Why It Matters and Why It's Real." Economic Policy Institute, September 2015, accessed September 21, 2016.

10 Crawford, Neta. "U.S. Budgetary Costs of War through 2016: $4.79 Trillion and Counting." Watson Institute at Brown University, September 2016.

11 Chwabish, Jonathan and Courtney Griffith, "The U.S. Federal Budget." The Congressional Budget Office, 2012.

12 Cebula, Richard and Edgar Feige. "America's Underground Economy: Measuring the Size, Growth, and Determinants of Income Tax Evasion in the U.S." Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, 2011.

13 "Visualization: Big Money in Tax Breaks." National Priorities Project: Fighting for a Federal Budget that Works for All Americans. Accessed October, 2016.

14 Baker, Dean. "Bernie Sanders Takes it to Wall Street with Financial Transaction Tax." Huffington Post May 2015, accessed October 20, 2016.