[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]
Tuition hikes are scheduled for the upcoming 2011-2012 school year for DePaul University, Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and University of Illinois campuses in Chicago, Springfield, and Urbana-Champaign. These hikes are accompanied in most cases by announcements of increased budgeting for financial aid. School administrators are sending a message: they count on a flexible student body that must be prepared to finance their school’s budget needs with their debt. On Thursday, May 19th, about 30 activists, and students met at DePaul University’s Lincoln Park campus for a speak-out hosted by the Anti-Capitalist Coalition against student debt and tuition hikes. The result was a collective decision to launch a campaign around the two issues to highlight and combat their effects at DePaul and, potentially, in Chicago and the United States more generally.
Judith Feingold, an alumnus of Northwestern University in attendance at the speak-out stated, “We are all told that if you want to get a decent job, you need to go to school, and we all know that if you can’t afford school, you’ll probably have to go into debt.” Many attendees shared this notion, as it reflects a well-established trend over the last forty years: real wages for college-educated workers have stagnated, whereas those of workers without a college degree have declined. To merely keep up with historical income levels, high school graduates face increasing economic coercion directing them to college. In 2009, over two-thirds of U.S. students graduated with student debt.
For the first time, total student debt in the U.S. has surpassed credit card debt, at estimates of $829 to $826 billion respectively. Total U.S. student debt in the form of private and government loans is expected to surpass $1 trillion by 2012 and is currently growing by $90 million per year.
Historical trends now combine with contemporary forces to precipitate a terrain of struggle that is more precarious than ever for students, graduates, and would-be students. Two of the defining features of the ‘American Dream’ in the Twentieth Century was home ownership and higher education. 2008 saw the financial crisis shake the first at its foundations. Now, these tremors continue to mount at the base of the second in the form of increasing socio-economic contradictions such as poor economic prospects and a lifetime of debt bondage.
Historical unemployment levels are pushing more students to seek shelter from a bad labor market by going back to school or staying in school longer, with the expectation they will be better prepared when things turn around. While disaster-incentivized education has created a boon for universities and colleges, college degrees do not ensure college jobs for graduates.Only 55% of 2009 college graduates are currently working in jobs requiring a college degree, whereas 22% work in jobs that do not and 22% are unemployed. More college graduates are finding themselves in a situation akin to the one that contributed to uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia: they are in a market that cannot support the human capital investments it demands of its constituents. The old rules of competitive capitalism apply: with the glut of highly skilled workers in the labor market, wages decrease on the whole and unemployment becomes a structural advantage to employers, while graduates increasingly must face up to a past that is spent and a future that is exhausted by underpaying jobs and debt.
While all of the above indicates a systemically related set of phenomena, as an outgrowth of neoliberal programming, the explosion of student debt is typically framed within a discourse of individual choice and responsibility. One participant at the speak-out willingly accepted his fate: “I have over one hundred thousand dollars of student debt, I’ve tried starting my own business as [DePaul] taught me, but it didn’t work, so I went back to school, but, in the end, I feel like it’s all my fault.” The positivity of the motivational discourse of self-improvement surrounding higher education conveniently turns into its opposite in cases of systemic failure. Self-improvement becomes self-blame as graduates and drop-outs internalize the anger that ought to be directed against a capitalist structure of financialized education.
More students are finding out that their time in higher education was collective exploitation. While students are led to approach higher education from a consumer standpoint, it would be more accurate to characterize them as workers. They produce knowledge in school, their collective labor is a source of revenue for higher-ed institutions, and debt repayments cut their future wages as graduated workers in advance. As such, the struggle for higher education must proceed by solidarity amongst all students who are currently facing or will face student debt. This means overcoming student turn-over in colleges and building ties with people alone in the labor market facing down their ballooning debt. It also means making in-roads with high-school students, as tuition hikes are often levied against the incoming freshman. The Anti-Capitalist coalition is currently launching a campaign to make the invisible and isolating experience of student debt a point of collective visibility and link this visibility with the exploitative tuition hikes at colleges all over Chicago.
 Marc Bosquet. How The University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. New York: NYU Press, 2008. P. 153.