The Crushing Contradictions of the American University

In the weeks following the U.S. presidential election in November, Twitter was aflutter with the suggestion that a Biden-Harris administration could issue an executive order canceling student-loan debt. The responses ranged from the moralizing — “Why should I pay for other peoples’ poor choices?” — to the hortatory — “Higher ed is a right!” — to the pedantic — “Historian of higher ed, here.” And then there was the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, quote-tweeting those who couched their opposition to student-debt forgiveness as a concern about the majority of Americans without the “luxury” of a college degree:

McMillan Cottom’s tweet distilled the argument she had first made in her book Lower Ed (2017): The explosive growth of for-profit colleges has been fueled in part by federally backed student loans, a wildly disproportionate share of which are owed by Black men and women. Elite higher ed, in her words, “legitimizes the education gospel while” Lower Ed “absorbs all manner of vulnerable groups who believe in it.”

What must one believe in to be willing to borrow tens of thousands of dollars in order to pursue a certification of completion — a B.A.? What would a college have to promise in order to compel someone to do that? What would a bank have to believe to extend this person credit? Or the U.S. government, to guarantee such loans en masse — now roughly $2 trillion? And what would a society have to believe to sustain the system that keeps it all going?

Read the full essay at the Chronicle Review or download a PDF:

chad wellmon

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