The Lost Promise of College for AllRoundup
tags: higher education, student debt, colleges and universities
Jack Schneider is an associate professor of education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is the co-author of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door and the co-host of the education policy podcast Have You Heard.
When the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in a pair of legal challenges to President Biden’s student debt relief plan on Tuesday, February 28, the justices will be weighing the question of whether the Biden administration overstepped its authority by wiping away the debt owed by tens of millions of Americans. Whatever the court’s decision, there is a more profound question at play than whether the six states that brought the suit will lose tax revenue should the plan be allowed to stand.
For decades, young Americans have been told that college is the only way to get ahead. Their degrees, they were assured, would pay for themselves. Yet the Biden administration’s debt relief effort is an acknowledgment that they have been misled. Going to college was supposed to lift everyone into the middle class, but what if it can’t?
For most of American history, the question of who higher education was for had a clear answer. College was something that only elites did—it was a privilege. In 1940, fewer than 5 percent of Americans had completed four years of college; as recently as the 1960s, less than 10 percent of the population had done so (among people of color, it would take another decade to hit that figure). When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, only 22 percent of adult Americans had completed a four-year college degree.
The bulk of the twentieth century, it turns out, was an age of high school diplomas. But in the years that followed, the political rhetoric around higher education began to rapidly shift. The so-called New Democrats—led by Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council—began to make the case that college was for everyone. Higher education, as they framed it, was the key to labor market competitiveness in the modern economy.
The idea that economic inequality could be addressed without the need for redistribution had appeal to Republicans, as well. “In order for our citizens to be able to seize the opportunities of a new era,” observed George W. Bush in an event celebrating the passage of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, “they’re going to have to have skills that can be only learned through a postsecondary education.” Jobs in an increasingly global economy, Bush noted, were going to “require some sort of education after high school.” Republican and Democrat talking points were nearly indistinguishable on this topic. According to the Obama White House, earning a postsecondary degree was “no longer just a pathway to opportunity for a talented few”; instead, it had become “a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy.”