President Joe Biden decided to finally give a little bit of relief to those drowning in student debt by announcing his plan to forgive $10,000 in student loan debt for federal borrowers (audible gasp) and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients (even more audible gasp).
Of course this sent our austerity loving society into a frenzy. Instead of critiquing the plan for not going far enough as Biden himself promised on the campaign trail, many have resorted to nothing but constant whining and complaining about the idea of, young people in particular, receiving some relief. However, the one point that seems to never be discussed is the origin of the student debt crisis and how we got to this point.
Today the average student-loan debt is $37,667 compared to the income of a college graduate. The average debt per college grad in 1970 was $1,070 or $7,458 when adjusted to May 2021 dollars. So, how does the average student national debt increase by over $36,000 over 50 years? The answer is corporate retaliation and fear of an educated, critical polity.
The foundation was laid by Ronald Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign in California vilifying student activists who dared oppose the Vietnam War and the status quo. Targeting specifically the campus of UC Berkeley, Reagan would communicate with the FBI frequently to help fix the issue of perceived “communist influence.” Reagan was “dedicated to the destruction of disruptive elements on California campuses” and this led to cutting state-funding for public California colleges.
After defunding colleges, Reagan would propose going to a tuition-based system. And so, in the span of a year Reagan would shift the political belief in college as a public good and free institution into one that should be paid for. All because free college was making citizens too smart as Reagan’s advisor Roger Freeman revealed, “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat.”
Then in 1971, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote a now infamous memo laying out a plan for corporations to effectively seize control of all levers of power within America. Powell’s reasoning was that “the American enterprise system” was under attack from revolutionaries and “communists” levying anti-capitalist criticisms against the government and society. Powell specified critical institutions that Big Business would have to wage long term-war to regain dominance in the American zeitgeist including college campuses, high schools, the courts, the media, and the political arena.
Powell particularly honed in on campuses as a domain that contained “the most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism” against capitalism. The fear was that many young college graduates would end up in governmental positions and be hostile to the interests of corporations.
Interesting that both Powell and Reagan saw education as a negative. Their plan worked as campuses would turn from safe-havens of critical thinking to pipelines for businesses as intended. Why would an individual be interested in critiquing society when they need a good job to pay back student loans on top of other bills and debts they’ll need to pay?
After Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980 along with the Powell memo’s influence, colleges across the country saw their budgets cut more routinely and were forced to become tuition-based. The average student loan debt would continue to balloon from Reagan’s administration until peaking in 2007 with the Great Recession. Despite the average falling since 2007, it is still outrageously high, especially compared to when it was originally free.
Now, as the current discourse continues as to whether Biden should forgive student-loan debt I hope young people understand how we got here. We got here because businesses and politicians would rather young people wallow in debt than dare criticize a system that finds it beneficial for their citizens to be trapped in debtor’s prisons. Maybe those anti-capitalists had a point.