Getting a Subprime Education in America

“Public” higher education is on a path toward the grimmest sort of privatization.

These days, it seems like going to college increasingly means heading for the nearest pawn shop or loan shark to hock your valuables. Based on a recent spate of figures, it looks as if we'll soon need to find a replacement term for the “public” in public higher education. After all, the cost of a public college education is rising at a startling clip. Tuitions at four-year universities have gone up by15% between 2008 and 2010 (and are still on the upswing). Since 2001, in fact, tuition and fees have climbed at a 5.6% rate annually. In some states, it’s far worse. At six Georgia public universities, for instance, costs jumped by more than 40%. In Arizona, California, and Washington, it was 16% to 21% last year alone. Meanwhile, for the 2011-2012 school year, state funding of higher education nationwide plunged by 7.5%. At the moment, tuition increases at public colleges are almost double those at private ones.

It shouldn’t surprise you, then, to discover that “public” education is increasingly becoming a very private nightmare. A recent analysis by the Pew Research Center found that student debt is soaring, with a record 22.4 million American households -- nearly one in five -- carrying it. In 2010, the average debt burden of those households was $26,682 (“more than double the share two decades earlier”) and 10% of them owed more than $61,894. Though this debt burden falls on every sector of society, perhaps this won’t surprise you either that the poorest and youngest households are in the worst trouble. Student debt is eating up nearly a quarter of their household income. As the Pew study puts it, “[T]he relative burden of student loan debt is greatest for households in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum, even though members of such households are less likely than those in other groups to attend college in the first place.”

So this shouldn’t shock you either: according to the Department of Education, school loan defaults have risen for the fifth straight year. “Public school borrowers defaulted at a rate of 8.3%, up from 5.9% just four years ago.” In other words, “public” higher education is on a path toward the grimmest sort of privatization.  Increasingly, if you don't have the money, there's a sign on the door of the local college classroom saying “no access,” which is another way of saying no access to a decent future. In the economic meltdown of 2007-2008, millions of homeowners went “underwater” thanks to subprime mortgages. Now, as TomDispatch associate editor and Mother Jones reporter Andy Kroll makes clear in his new piece “Back to $chool,” in the process of hollowing itself out and crippling its future, this country is hell-bent on producing subprime educations as well.


Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

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