O’er the Land of the Screwed, and the Home of the Screwers

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DeVos Repeals Obama-Era Rule Cracking Down on For-Profit Colleges (The New York Times)

This presidential campaign season, as execrable as it already is (and I’m under no delusions of it somehow getting better in the next sixteen months), has at least generated some discourse about American colleges and universities, especially about their cost. While the possibility of forgiving student debt has grabbed the most headlines, how future students will pay for their higher education, or even if they’ll have to pay at all (outside of the taxes they already pay), has also been getting some attention. Arguments in favour of using taxes to pay tuition at public colleges (or even just community colleges) are always there to some degree, but they’ve gotten more prominent in recent years, and the nascent election season is serving to amplify these arguments even more.

As someone recently pointed out on Twitter, the arguments that making college accessible to everyone regardless of their ability to pay tuition would somehow “diminish” the value of college degrees is prime evidence of the gatekeeping being done by some people when it comes to higher education. For all the talk of “meritocracy” that right-wingers like to trot out, the fact that they think some people shouldn’t be able to go to college for nothing else but lack of available funding just goes to show that like every other avenue of self-improvement there is out there, they want to cordon off access to the tools with which people can create successful lives for themselves to everyone except people as rich/conservative/fucked up as they are, so they can continue to perpetuate their perverted philosophies while so many others are left to suffer as so much grist in the mill.

In addition to using money as a cudgel to keep everyone else in line, conservatives have long tried to discredit higher education in every way imaginable, from claims of political bias and indoctrination (which have only gotten worse and more ludicrous as the Republican party keeps abandoning its intellectual side), to the growing antagonism of left-leaning college students by making their campuses increasingly dangerous. Attacking the value of a college degree is nothing new to them, but what is new in recent years is the increasing efforts to undermine colleges and universities, in an attempt to turn their poisonous pablum about how “bad” higher education is into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s not fair to paint all for-profit colleges with the same paintbrush, of course, but the entire reason for the Obama Administration targeting so many of them was because they were little more than ways to get people to part with their money for the promise of an “education” and a degree that often had little value than the paper it was printed on. This phenomenon had reached ludicrous proportions by the time the Obama Administration took some steps (arguably not enough) to rein it in, but what made it worse (and this continues today) is how veterans with GI Bill benefits are frequently targeted by for-profit colleges, making them more likely to fall prey to the scammers out there. People who put their lives on the line in the defence of this country deserve a hell of a lot better than to be played for fools.

Playing people for fools, though, has become a central tenet of modern-day American conservatism, and their relentless attacks on education are part and parcel of keeping their revenue chains flowing. Stopping us from knowing if the food we’re eating has been genetically modified in a lab, or how our leaders make so much money in the first place, or what conditions immigrants are living under in the concentration camps on our borders, are all just more specific examples of how we are all under attack from the right-wing these days in their war on information and the idea of people being able to make rational, thought-out decisions on their own. By attacking education, conservatives get at the very root of this issue, because the only thing worse than not having the information necessary to make a well-informed decision is not having the skills with which to make well-informed decisions.

It’s horrible enough that the Trump Administration is now deliberately making it easier for their ilk to scam people through for-profit colleges, but what’s even more galling is the clear parallels between this approach and the attacks on K-12 public education of the last quarter-century. I now live just a couple of hours away from one of the first battlegrounds for these attacks, using the false promise of charter schools to simultaneously enable the creation of countless scams for educating children, while at the same time slashing funding for public schools and endlessly lying about school problems that they either deliberately exacerbated or created out of whole cloth, all the while pointing to a small handful of successful charter schools as proof of the need to further destroy public education. (Never mind that most of those successful charters are mostly inaccessible to families that aren’t already rich, but hey, education is good as long as it’s for the kids of the already-privileged, right?)

Just like in the Reagan years, we’re dealing with the proverbial “bull in a china shop” in nearly all aspects of government, and that’s because the right-wing model for societal transformation is to deliberately break as much of government as possible, then point to the damage they caused and cite it as “proof” that government doesn’t work. Enabling scammers to take people’s money through for-profit colleges is hardly the most obvious example of this, but for educators like me who are deeply invested, personally and professionally, in helping young people develop the skills they need to make good decisions on their own, it’s yet another example of how we’re being forced not only to make up for the deficiencies deliberately put in place by this current wave of far-right misanthropes, but also to prevent our very essence from being bulldozed at the same time. Taxpayer-subsidized college may be a ways off yet, but we need to get this information into people’s heads as quickly as we can, before the battle to save higher education from the forces of the far-right gets even worse.

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