What Comes After the Public University?

This is an invited post by Ann Larson for the Anthropologies Student Debt Issue (#20).  Larson is a graduate of the PhD program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center where she researched first-generation students in higher education. In academic exile, she has worked as an adjunct professor, as a public relations assistant, and as a (volunteer) communications and technical coordinator for Strike Debt. Her writing on debt can be found here, here and here. She writes about academia on her blog.


With total student loan debt over one trillion dollars, millions of students and families can never hope to repay what they owe, especially since there are no individual solutions to the problem. Student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, and student loan lenders can and do garnish debtors’ wages and social security checks. The powers of lenders to collect are unprecedented in the history of creditor/debtor relations.

Yet, belief in upward mobility through education is still a profoundly American ideal. In the midst of the latest recession, politicians and elites have argued not for the redistribution of wealth but for making college “more affordable” in the belief that increasing access to education makes more fundamental social changes unnecessary. Forgotten, too, in the emphasis on college financing is that education is not just a path to a job. It’s a site of human desire, aspiration, and hope for the future.

As a former teacher and a student debtor, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of higher education. And as an education activist, I’ve been coming to terms with what it means to fight for public education while mourning the death of the university. Before explaining what I mean by “the death of the university,” I will provide some details about my own political history and how it has shaped my current thinking.

In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, I was part of the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, a group committed to the idea that student debt is, by definition, illegitimate and that building the power of debtors through collective action is the only option. We also believed that refusing to pay illegitimate debts was a necessary and moral act. Starting in November 2011, OSDC asked student debtors to sign an online petition pledging to stop paying their loans once one million others agreed to do the same. We hoped, at the very least, to build solidarity and to chip away at the myth that debt is an individual failure, something people must suffer in isolation and shame. In fact, almost three quarters of Americans are in some kind of debt, and nearly six million student debtors were already in default when we launched the pledge of refusal.

The pledge was based upon four principles: 1) All public two- and four-year colleges should be tuition free. 2) Student loans, if they exist at all, should be interest free. 3) Private colleges must open their books so that students could learn how their tuition dollars were spent. 4) All current student debt should be written off in the spirit of Jubilee.

Unfortunately, the campaign was not as successful as we had hoped. It turned out to be very difficult for people to imagine not paying their loans, even at some point in the distant future. The idea that all debts should be repaid is a leash that keeps debtors working more and more hours and giving up many other life ambitions to make dreaded monthly payments. And, even though public college in the U.S. was free or low-cost for much of the 20th century, it was difficult to convince people, especially members of the press, that the goal of ending tuition was anything more than a quixotic fantasy.

By spring 2012, OSDC was as committed as ever, but we needed a new strategy. We joined with others from the Occupy movement to start Strike Debt. We wanted to expand our analysis of the debt system. Parents, for example, might take out a second mortgage on the family home to send their kids to college. Someone without health insurance might rack up medical debt, while also putting some of the costs of health care on credit cards. A worker who loses a job might turn to payday lenders to make ends meet, leading to a negative credit rating. In some states, a bad credit score makes it more difficult to find a job. Strike Debt wanted to unravel the web of debt to understand the way it affects all of our lives in multiple, overlapping ways.

One of our first projects was to research and write a book about debt from an anti-capitalist perspective. In the Debt Resisters’ Operations Manual, we drew connections between different kinds of debt – from student loans to municipal debt – and offered individual tactics to keep creditors at bay while emphasizing that collective action is the only long-term solution. We gave away 5,000 copies of the DROM and made a free version available on our website. (The second volume will be released in early March. It will also be available free online.)

Another Strike Debt project was the Rolling Jubilee, which launched on November 15, 2012. RJ collected donations and used the money to purchase debt on the secondary market. But instead of collecting on that debt like a debt collector, we abolished it.  By the time we closed the Rolling Jubilee fund at the end of 2013, we had raised over $600,000 and cancelled $15 million in medical debt for people in 46 states.

From the beginning of the campaign, we hoped to help change the conversation about debt. As successful as the Rolling Jubilee was (we received attention from the press, including feature stories in the New York Times and The Guardian, among many others), we knew that abolishing individual debts was not a long-term solution to the predatory debt system or to the savageries of capitalism. As the saying goes: “if you owe the bank $1,000, the bank owns you. But if you owe the bank $10 million, you own the bank.” With that in mind, we have moved on to other projects and are strategizing new ways to develop the collective power of debtors.

As the next phase unfolds, I’ve been thinking about the early goals of OSDC, the group that served as my entry point into the debt resistance movement. A jubilee of all student debts (one of OSDC’s original principles) may still seem impossible. But, as Andrew Ross wrote in Creditocracy: The Case for Debt Refusal, advocates for debt cancellation in the Jubilee South movement “have had some success in delivering relief for some of the world’s poorest populations.” And in global North cities such as Detroit and in Eurozone countries, “the process of questioning which [public] debts are legitimate  ­– and deserving of repayment – and which are unfair impositions – to be rightly rejected – is already underway.”

One of the central questions raised by Ross and other theorists is: how can we determine which kinds of debts should be abolished? Marxian scholar George Caffentzis researched El Barzón, a debtors movement that was active in Mexico in the 1990s, and found that the group’s success in getting the Mexican government to cancel some mortgage debts had a largely conservative effect. Such “reformist jubilees,” Caffentzis explained,

relieve the pressure put on ruling classes by debtors’ movements, since the jubilee appears to have “solved” the problem and then dissipates the mass opposition to debt. Debts have been cancelled in these reformist jubilees, so that the oppressive machine could keep grinding on. However, some jubilees have a revolutionary impact and mark the beginning of new forms of social organization.

Some kind of jubilee is probably inevitable in the U.S. as well, since the current situation is unsustainable. What form it will take and who will ultimately benefit?

To answer that question, we can examine how the terms of the battle against student debt have shifted over the last few years. Incredibly, three years after Occupy, some members of the political class are now calling for free higher education. Tennessee’s Governor Bill Haslam (a Republican) recently proposed making all 2-year community colleges and technical schools free. The New York Times called the idea a “striking reversal” of the trend towards higher prices and speculated that the goal was to create “a better educated work force” in that state. In Wisconsin, state Senator Kathleen Vinehout endorsed a similar proposal. More people need to go to college, she wrote, because “education raises wages and the likelihood of employment.” Finally, in Oregon, lawmakers are exploring a proposal to provide “debt-free” education to students enrolled in public colleges. The program, called Pay It Forward, would allow the state to take a portion of students’ paychecks for up to 25 years. (I co-authored an essay critiquing PIF here.)

Though all of these programs are far from implementation, they can be read as responses from the political establishment to justified public anger and frustration at the high cost of college. They are attempts by elected officials to blunt the possibility of a real debtors rebellion that could challenge the social relations that undergird the creditor/debtor relationship. In other words, the “reformist jubilees” identified by Caffentzis may already be in progress.

What can the debtors movement learn from these transformations in the political landscape? Were OSDC’s original goals of tuition-free education and a student debt jubilee wrong because they may eventually lead to conservative reforms? Is the goal of helping to change the way we think about debt misplaced if it does not explicitly reject such reforms from the outset? I think the answer is no. I interpret the fact that politicians felt compelled to respond to public outrage as an important early victory for the debt resistance movement, of which OSDC and Strike Debt are only a small part.

Now the crucial question: what’s next? What if the solutions we seek can’t be found within the current political system? How can we re-tool our tactics and re-imagine our goals in the interest of progress towards a re-distribution of wealth and public resources like education? It seems clear that accepting the Oregon state legislature’s definition of “debt-free” college or allowing some politicians to earn points for eliminating tuition at those institutions that were already relatively inexpensive (such as community colleges in Tennessee) will not lead us to the paradigmatic shift in social relations that we seek.

The next phase of our work requires a deeper analysis of how debt traps us in quicksand, desperate for any form of relief. If you study hard and earn a degree, we’ve all been told, you will have a competitive advantage in the job market, which will then lead to a middle-class standard of living. We should reject this myth, once and for all. According to recent data, of the 20 occupations expected to add the most jobs over the next ten years, only one will require a four-year degree. Most jobs of the future will be low-wage jobs in areas like health care, retail, and food service. Paying workers as little as possible to create wealth for owners is the definition of capitalism, and more college degrees can’t change that basic equation.

The next phase of the debtors movement must confront the idea that the higher education system we have is not ultimately the one that we want, even if it’s free. A diploma is no longer a path to upward mobility. Maybe it never was. And it’s easy to forget in an era of austerity that education is supposed to be much more than a path to a paycheck. Unfortunately, these days, most colleges operate on vast supplies of cheap labor, including adjunct faculty. They are run as private corporations for the benefit of the investor class. In California, which is leading the trend, universities already pay $1 billion per year in interest alone to Wall Street banks. Could such places ever be reclaimed for the public?

Of course, we should not relinquish our (formerly) public spaces without a fight. At the same time, those of us who care about education must acknowledge that the institutions we have are quite possibly beyond saving. “The question to ask now,” wrote David Graeber, “is not, how do we bring [higher education] back? . . . The question is what new forms of genuinely democratic self-organization might rise from its ashes?”

In that regard, the OSDC pledge of refusal may have been before its time. In those days, many critics asked: “you oppose student debt, but what are you for?” We felt pressured to come up with a positive program and to articulate a vision for the world to come. Yet, we were just a few volunteers who had met for the first time a few weeks earlier in Zuccotti Park. The fact that we rarely had a satisfying answer felt like a weakness. But perhaps our lack of a blueprint for the future was actually a strength that suggests a great deal about the work still to come: we didn’t know what the sites of teaching and learning we really wanted would be like because no one had invented them yet.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

One thought on “What Comes After the Public University?

  1. Thanks, Ann, for this post, which judging from the dearth of comments, may be a wee too radical for the SM mob. You make two terrifically important points that need constant hammering: a myth-busting challenge to the David Brooks et alia fantasy, which transmogrifies Higher-Ed degrees into meaningful jobs, and a corollary warning that systematic problems require systematic, i.e., not reformist, solutions.

    John Lawrence writes in Sunday’s Truthout that “the most common jobs in the United States are now service sector jobs at companies like Walmart and McDonalds. Service sector jobs tend to be poorly paid, part-time, and have no health or retirement benefits.” Or this little gem: “Raising the minimum wage is a short-term fix,” contends Wal-Mart’s [vice president for communications, David] Tovar. The long-term solution, he says, involves “expanding education, training, and workforce development.” Sure, David – both Davids – what we need are even more over-qualified people competing for under-paid, exploitative and, often, humdrum jobs. Smells like ‘adjunct’, doesn’t it and, like adjunct, this is the fastest growing job sector in the US – hardly worth a lifetime of uncertainty and debt.

    But why this obsession with formal higher education? I’m not speaking about John Adam’s right to education embedded into the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but the notion that tertiary education is mandatory for a lifetime of productive citizenry. This may have made sense in the early idealistic days of our (then) more-or-less homogenous aspirational democracy, but the idea rings so false now that capitalism has hollowed out the meaning of participatory citizenship by, in Erik Olin Wright’s words, “excluding crucial decisions from public deliberation, by allowing private wealth to affect access to political power, and by allowing workplace dictatorships.” (And, I might add, it is our most educated leaders and power brokers, graduates from our most elite universities, who have capitulated and are responsible for this upside down democracy.) A university degree in this context, unless it’s a STEM or Business degree, is a stepping stone to nowhere in particular and certainly not a pathway to meaningful participatory citizenship unless you’re willing to concede that a Walmart Greeter falls into that category.

    So if Higher-Ed is not the golden egg it’s trumped up to be, and those promises of future wealth/meaning/opportunities/whatever are, well, just promises…what then? This is where proper problem identification comes into play and systematic solutions to systematic problems need prevail over reformism. It’s obvious bunk to state that individual people get jobs, for instance, because they’re better qualified than their competitors, and therefore conclude that the solution to unemployment is for everyone to be better qualified. Ask any adjunct. But this idea fits so nicely into what we think is the US’s greatest strength: the deification of the individual who, released into a free-for-all, will prevail through sheer grit and cunning. This is, of course, as spurious as the myth of a classless, exceptional America that is a mecca for social mobility. Just read the stats, David. The problem of a lack of opportunities is a problem of political will. What effect would a 4-day work week have on unemployment; a hefty inheritance tax on levels of persistent inequality and disadvantage; a nationwide war on climate disruption that incubates alternative energy industries on new capabilities training; urban agriculture initiatives on health; grants and no interest financing for worker-owned cooperatives on autonomous, meaningful work? The list can go on and on and would signal an about face in terms of the purpose, values, and direction of our nation. We’d be studying and learning inside and outside the university within a completely different context, where our knowledge and experience and grit, if you will, could be applied to a collective future where not just STEM and Business make sense.

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