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What's Left 8: Health Care Is a Human Right

Ted Rall on

Learning is a societal and individual good. American businesses, however, have weaponized higher education into an overcredentialization racket that coerces millions of young people to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars in tuition, room and board, often to study subjects in which they have little interest, for the chance to be hired for a job. To add insult to usury, the diploma for which they sink into high-interest student loan debt reflects an education with no useful application to the position where they land.

It is tempting, from the standpoint of the Left, to dismiss the soaring price of college tuition, usurious student loan interest rates and overcredentialization as a first-world problem afflicting middle-class suburbanites who, after struggling after graduation, will soon enough pay off their debt and enjoy a significantly higher income than workers with high school diplomas. But no society can afford to ignore the plight of its most highly educated ambitious young people who, as Crane Brinton reminded us in "The Anatomy of Revolution," are an essential catalyst to radical political change. College students are a diverse lot; nearly half are people of color and more than 60% are women. Despite the problems within higher education, America has no bigger engine for upward economic mobility.

The problem is, the college income premium only accrues to those who finish all four years and get their degree, which includes very few poor and working-class people. Fifteen percent of students from the lowest quartile of wage earners make it all the way through, compared to 61% of those in the top quartile.

Too many employers, too lazy to sort job applicants from a broader pool, demand college diplomas even when the job they are hiring for does not require the relevant education and training, as a way of culling the herd. "More than half of Americans who earned college diplomas find themselves working in jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree or utilize the skills acquired in obtaining one," according to CBS News.

Requiring a superfluous college degree brazenly discriminates against poorer people, expanding and prolonging the class divide. Under a Left government, economic disadvantage would become a protected legal class alongside race, age, sex, gender identity, physical handicap and so on. Workers should be able to report job listings that seek overqualified workers to a federal bureau in the Department of Labor, which would have the power to impose substantial penalties, including fines and compensation for applicants who are discriminated against.

"Nearly two-thirds of American workers do not have a four-year college degree. Screening by college degree hits minorities particularly hard, eliminating 76% of Black adults and 83% of Latino adults," The New York Times reported in 2022. Yet 44% of all U.S. employers required at least a B.A. or B.S. for all their openings.

 

A 2017 Harvard Business School study found that "60% of employers rejected otherwise qualified candidates in terms of skills or experience simply because they did not have a college diploma."

Requiring employers to do the right, logical and fair thing, and hire qualified high school graduates, dropouts and GED holders will allow more Americans to avoid college debt traps, incentivize companies to train workers, give working-class families more opportunities and reduce the high-intensity competition for college and university acceptance.

Student loans are a $1.7 trillion for-profit business that gives lenders the ultimate leverage: No matter what they do or how legitimate their inability to pay, distressed borrowers cannot even discharge their college debts in bankruptcy. At this writing, the average interest rate on student loans is 6.9%. The highest rate at which banks borrow money, however, is 5.5% -- and the rate for the much longer terms of student loans is lower.

Young scholars are bright, vulnerable citizens with endless potential, not a profit center for transnational lending institutions. If we must have a for-profit system of postsecondary education and student loans to afford it, those loans should be at zero profit to banks or anyone else. And they should be able to be discharged in bankruptcy, just like any other debt.

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