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Common Dreams - February 3, 2022

Student debt is a rare or even nonexistent thing in most western democracies.

Ronald Reagan knew that an educated populace was more progressive and more Democratic, and he was determined to stop the explosion of college educated Americans caused by both the 1944 GI Bill and free tuition at the University of California.

Forty years later, student debt has crippled two generations of young Americans: over 44 million people carry the burden, totaling a $1.5 trillion drag on our economy that benefits nobody except the banks earning interest on the debt.

But that doesn't begin to describe the damage student debt has done to America since Reagan, in his first year as governor of California, ended free tuition at the University of California and cut state aid to that college system by 20 percent across-the-board.

After having destroyed low income Californians' ability to get an education in the 1970s, he then took his anti-education program national as president in 1980.

When asked why he'd taken a meat-axe to higher education and was pricing college out of the reach of most Americans, he said that college students were "too liberal" and America "should not subsidize intellectual curiosity."

After all, college educated people are more likely to vote for Democrats: Joe Biden, for example, won fully 60 percent of the college educated vote in 2020. In the minds of Republicans, colleges just produce progressives and protestors. What Limbaugh used to call "the pointy-headed liberals of academia."

Four days before the Kent State Massacre of May 5, 1970, Governor Reagan called students protesting the Vietnam war across America "brats," "freaks" and "cowardly fascists," adding, as The New York Times noted at the time, "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it over with. No more appeasement!"

Before Reagan became president, states paid 65 percent of the costs of colleges and federal aid covered another 15 or so percent, leaving students to cover the remaining 20 percent. Today the numbers are pretty much reversed.

As soon as he became president, Reagan went after federal aid to students with fervor. Devin Fergus documented for The Washington Post how, as a result, student debt first became a widespread thing across the United States during the early 80s:

"No federal program suffered deeper cuts than student aid. Spending on higher education was slashed by some 25 percent between 1980 and 1985. ... Students eligible for grant assistance freshmen year had to take out student loans to cover their second year."

It became a mantra for conservatives, particularly in Reagan's cabinet. Let the kids pay for their own damn "liberal" educations.

Reagan's Director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, told a reporter in 1981:

"I don't accept the notion that the federal government has an obligation to fund generous grants to anybody that wants to go to college. It seems to me that if people want to go to college bad enough then there is opportunity and responsibility on their part to finance their way through the best way they can. … I would suggest that we could probably cut it a lot more."

After all, cutting taxes for the rich was Reagan's first and main priority, a position the GOP holds to this day. Cutting education could "reduce the cost of government." His first Education Secretary, Terrel Bell, wrote in his memoir:

"Stockman and all the true believers identified all the drag and drain on the economy with the 'tax-eaters': people on welfare, those drawing unemployment insurance, students on loans and grants, the elderly bleeding the public purse with Medicare, the poor exploiting Medicaid."

Reagan's next Education Secretary, William Bennett, was even more blunt about how America should deal with the "problem" of uneducated people who can't afford college, particularly if they were African American:

"I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime," Bennett said, "you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down."

These various perspectives became an article of faith across the GOP. Reagan's OMB Director David Stockman told Congress that students were "tax eaters … [and] a drain and drag on the American economy." Student aid, he said, "isn't a proper obligation of the taxpayer."

This was where, when, and how today's student debt crisis was kicked off in 1981.

Before Reagan, though, America had a different perspective.

Both my father and my wife Louise's father served in the military during World War II and both went to college on the GI Bill. My dad dropped out after two years and went to work in a steel plant because mom got pregnant with me; Louise's dad, Bob Goussy, who'd grown up dirt poor, went all the way for his law degree and ended up an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan.  ...
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