The Crushing Contradictions of the American University

tags: higher education, student debt, colleges and universities

Chad Wellmon is a professor of German studies and history at the University of Virginia. His latest book, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age, will be published this summer. You can follow him on Twitter @cwellmon.

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?

The word credit comes from French and Italian words meaning “belief” or “trust,” and it is related to the Latin noun for “loan” or “a thing entrusted to another” (crēditum) and the verb “to trust” or “to believe” (crēdere). Credit is a form of trust that one person or group has in another, and that serves as the basis for the former to provide the latter some thing (typically goods or money), with the expectation that the person so entrusted will within a certain period of time return it. In a relationship based on credit, belief and trust become practice. In the United States, it’s just this type of relationship that underpins the financing of higher education.

Colleges have for centuries benefited from the belief that they could provide prospective students, as well as institutions (the Roman Catholic Church, the state, the military, aristocratic classes) with particular goods (social recognition, status or class membership, discrete skills or knowledge, money, prestige). But it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century in the United States that a belief arose in the capacity of colleges to transform not just the lives of social elites but the lives of all people — and also to directly change society.

Where did this belief come from? How did it become, in the United States at least, nearly universal, almost assumed? Who made use of it, and to what ends?

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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