Artist's depiction of how increasingly privatized higher education is sucking public resources African and colonized communities need.

Class Struggle & Higher Education

The revived discourse around student loan forgiveness has created a forest for the tree moment, yet again, in how the masses react to what is purported to be incremental “wins.” The Biden administration recently announced that the federal government will forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for Americans making less than $125,000 annually as well as extend the student loan repayment moratorium. This announcement is in stark difference to the campaign Biden ran on, yet this offering is being oversold by mainstream media pundits and journalists ultimately causing mass confusion about what is happening in and with higher education.

Granted, what the Biden administration has done will alleviate much of the financial stress on many (despite what conservatives and Larry Summers are falsely insisting), it will not cause any material shift in the overall conditions of the poor being crushed under austerity. Student loans are obscenely predatory, forcing millions of people into financial entrapment for decades. Moreover, the “gotcha” moment the white house and liberal pundits are publicly participating in, listing the ‘then and now’ cost of college for congressmen who oppose student loan forgiveness, highlights that the cost of higher education has increased over the last 30-40 years by, in many instances, over 200%.

Does the student loan forgiveness amounting to $10,000 for a majority making less than $125,000 adequately address the continuous rising cost? Why has the cost of higher education shifted so drastically from free to minimal cost, to placing individuals in thousands of dollars worth of debt?

The shift in the cost of higher education changed under a Nixon administration which determined college students were an organized base of political opposition to domestic and global imperialist policy. Roger Freeman, a key educational advisor to Nixon working for then Gov Ronald Reagan, warned of the “danger of producing an educated proletariat” in 1970.

The book, The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972, by Ibram X. Kendi explains “African American students organized, demanded, and protested for Black Studies, progressive Black universities, new faces, new ideas–in short, a truly diverse system of higher education relevant to the Black community.” Kendi writes about how Black Student action (which was integrated into the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement) drew support from White, Latino, Chicano, Asian American, and Native American students, resulting in students (and some faculty) disrupting and challenging institutions in nearly every state.

Because of the sophistication and growth of student political activity, Nixon encouraged states to defund public colleges, which shifted the dynamic of the ongoing open admissions battles happening in major cities. This also guaranteed that future students would have to take on debt. In 1971, Associate Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell Jr, wrote a ‘confidential’ memo to Eugene B. Sydnor, Jr., Chairman, Education Committee, U.S. Chamber of Commerce which would become known as a blueprint for corporate domination of American Democracy.

In the memo, Powell, alarmed by the youth activity on college campuses, comes up with a strategy. Assessing the problem, Powell notes,

“The sources are varied and diffused. They include, not unexpectedly, the Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic. These extremists of the left are far more numerous, better financed, and increasingly are more welcomed and encouraged by other elements of society, than ever before in our history. But they remain a small minority, and are not yet the principal cause for concern.

The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.”

The memo is a plea to the Chamber of Commerce to intervene in such a way that would not only lessen political activity on campuses, but make college so expensive students would graduate debt and less likely to work against corporate interests.

The cost of student loans is not by happenstance. It is intended to cause permanent harm to the most disenfranchised. Also, it was theorized that political activism would feel more risky for indebted students who had much more to lose. Jacque Luqman reminds us, “Joseph Biden is the guy who is responsible for student loan debt being the nearly inescapable debt trap it is today since it was his bill, the Higher Education Act of 1976, and his support of later legislation that even further restricted student loans from being eligible to be discharged in bankruptcy.” When one considers Biden’s role in “bussing”, one has to wonder if the motivation to push this act was not also influenced by Nixon and Powell’s motivations.

In June Jordan’s Civil Wars: Observations From The Front Lines of America, she talks about witnessing the result of a long struggle waged on City College in New York City in 1969, firsthand, in an essay, Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person. Called in by Herb Kohl to cover his classes, Jordan, with no college degree, began teaching freshman comp in a public college alongside Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde, David Henderson, and Ray Patterson. Jordan describes City as split between faculty and Third World students who “wanted to inaugurate an Open Admissions policy, on one side, and faculty and students who viewed the Open Admissions concept as an intrinsic atrocity.” Ultimately, this struggle led to a stand-off. “In every sense, from faculty petition to student manifestos, to the atmosphere in the cafeteria and the bathrooms, City College signified a revolution in progress. Nobody was eating, sleeping, thinking, or moving around anything except the issues at stake.” 

In Davarian L. Baldwin’s The Shadow of The Ivory Tower: How Universities Are Plundering Our Cities, he also talks about that 1969 struggle in City Colleges (once known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat” in the 1930s) demanding the admission of more students of color. “These students insisted that City’s tuition- free colleges should help correct for a segregated and inferior school system by providing the bridge instruction to prepare a broader range of taxpaying citizens for social mobility.” 

The students demanded more expansive and inclusive admission from the surrounding neighborhood of Black and Puerto Rican residents that emphasized community. The continued political action around the student demands to connect City with the surrounding community (with an emphasis on Black Studies) pushed forward the landmark 1970 open-admissions policy including support services.

However, as noted above, state interference with higher education shifted the direction and also, as Baldwin explains, “early forays into neoliberal urban policy instigated a wholesale shift of public resources into private accounts.” The Nixon administration’s politically motivated full scale divestment in public colleges disconnected the people-powered community controlled relationship between communities and schools. Freeman identified City University of New York (CUNY) as 1 of 2 (University of California) “menacing” great public university systems charging no tuition. The motivations for student loans and the motivations for student entrapment in never-ending debt is clear.

By and large, student loan forgiveness under the Biden administration, while being mocked as “crumbs”, is still seen positively. Conversations about higher education and the role colleges and universities play (not to mention who and what is paying for it) have not shifted into any particular action. The discourse around student loan forgiveness, which ultimately results in the poor arguing with the poor, has skirted the issue of state collusion with higher ed which ultimately gave way to the rising cost. However, to analyze this using historical and dialectical materialism – that is connecting the dots and seeing the patterns clearly – is to see we collectively do not understand that the campus has always been and will continue to be a site of struggle.

The cost of higher education is not limited to students. Universities and colleges are expanding deeper and deeper into colonized communities raising the cost of living, placing an array of families in financial restraints, and creating police states. This “first step” is being sold as a win (in spite of the battles we’ve already won) and it feels as if the people are moving further away from understanding that we are at war.

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Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.