Suppose you think everyone should have access to higher education in this country. How would you do it?
Lately, student debt forgiveness has become the default approach of reformers. It was the means for President Obama’s proposal for free community college (really debt forgiveness for graduates) and it was the foundation of Gov. Cuomo’s suggestion of free state school tuition for New Yorkers (loan repayments for those continuing residency post-graduation). But both programs reinforce a conservative idea that education is an individual asset, a notion that will likely only increase economic polarization in this country.
Consider the alternative: upfront funding of colleges so they can provide adequate educational access for all who qualify themselves academically. Such a program would begin with the recognition that, while benefits accrue student by student, the cumulative advantage of a better-educated community is enjoyed by all. This is especially the case for those communities who find ways to educate their most disadvantaged members.
Unfortunately, the individual asset model of education takes the opposite approach. Increasingly, the burden of education is being placed on individual students – both through cost-shifting (federal loans to students replacing state funding to schools) and through the emphasis on online learning. While sold on the basis of expanding access, these changes actually tend to exacerbate existing systems of privilege. Those students who enter school with the best preparation (largely correlated with race and class) are most likely to graduate in a timely fashion and thus qualify for loan forgiveness. The supposed autodidacts who will benefit from this online education system are actually those with the strongest existing social networks and the cultural capitol to navigate the open system.
For a telling example, consider Arizona State University. Michael Crow, the innovation-minded president, seemed to be making impressive strides. Enrollment of low-income students has been up and he’s been drawing more out of state students. His recent partnership with Starbucks promises to expand the school’s online reach and offerings. When I met him once, he suggested conspiratorially that the trick in selling everything to the conservative state legislature was packaging it as ‘entrepreneurial.’ He could get what he wanted for students as long as he sold it on a business model. Now that’s come back to bite him, with Governor Ducey doubling-down on the business model, slashing funding and calling for results-oriented budgeting. The state’s two largest community colleges systems have fared even worse, with state funding zeroed out in the upcoming year, down from a combined total of more than $60 million as recently as 2011. All this despite a state constitution declaring that education at the universities “shall be as nearly free as possible.” The progressives who wrote that understood the communal model of education but the conservatives who run the state have replaced it with an individual asset model that removes the state from responsibility for higher education funding. The contrast is jarring.
If there’s one area where our society should be able to invest in real equality of opportunity, it ought to be our public education system. Instead, in recent decades we’ve been eroded our communal commitments. It’s no wonder we’re seeing greater stratification and division. Don’t expect to see that change if we can’t embrace community values in this basic way.