No Golden Tickets

Hundreds of thousands of Quebec students and supporters demonstrating Law 78 and tuition increases on 22 May.

On paper, hundreds of thousands of people came out to protest Quebec’s tuition increase of a couple of hundred dollars.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, but my American friends – and many of my Canadian ones – think it’s crazy. Tuition in Quebec is cheaper than anywhere else in North America.

That’s not saying much.

When my father went to the state university in our hometown, he paid one hundred and seventy dollars in tuition. Per year. This is why he could work his way through college, and even have some money left over to support his numerous younger siblings.

That would hardly be possible today. Yes, many students work to support themselves during college (university), but I don’t know anyone who has gone to school full time who has not accrued absolutely crushing student loans. I went to the same institution that my father had. Twenty-odd years later, the tuition had increased to $3,400 per year, not counting fees, which ran another grand or so. Today – in a recession – it costs $5,200 to attend. That increase exceeds the rate of inflation. The school itself has posted on its website that the true cost of attendance FOR COMMUTERS is over $14,000 per year, including books, student fees, and transportation; given the institution’s desire to set its own tuition, independent of state oversight, the figure is likely to climb even higher in the near future. Yet it is far less than a private school would cost.

There are scholarships, but those require above-average success in high school. There are grants, but those exclude middle-income students. There are loans, but there are ever fewer avenues for students, with no credit and little or no income, to secure them, and they have no guarantee that they will be able to repay them when their education ends. I had benefitted from a partial scholarship, but before I returned to graduate school, more than half of my income still went to pay my student loans. The other half paid my rent. I didn’t starve, but only because my then-boyfriend fed me.

One acquaintance suggested that families should simply have the foresight to save for their children’s education. This presupposes an income sufficient to put money aside. My white, urban family looked middle class, but my parents had nothing left over after feeding and clothing us and paying the mortgage. They were not spendthrifts. We wore secondhand clothing. There was simply not enough for a college fund. My siblings and I had no choice but to take out loans, which were, at the time, subsidized and easily acquired. My parents now help us to make our payments. I have friends who are not so fortunate. I’m sure that this is not what society envisions when it thinks of college graduates.

Quebec’s de-facto “user fees” for higher education don’t quite match New York’s, but they set a dangerous precedent. Rather than standing up for educational equality, Quebec is following in the footsteps of a broken American system.

What is it about equality in higher education that people find so troubling?

Based on responses to one of my Facebook posts this week, I’d say it has something to do with faith in a capitalist economy, where one invests in one’s own education and wields it on the job market. A college education, we are told, improves one’s prospects, yields a higher salary when employed, and creates a meritocracy. All you need to succeed are brains and drive.

Except that it’s a lie.

You need money to play, and then there is no guarantee of a job after graduation.

It’s not a question of building roads and bridges OR funding education. We simply need to prioritize.

The”job-creating” wealthiest companies are rewarded with tax breaks and bonuses even as they downsize to maintain their own prosperity.The government will subsidize bombs and jets, glow-in-the-dark corn and GE’s fat cats, but not education for “adult” eighteen-year-olds who still need mom and dad’s insurance. We have pushed, more and more, for higher education to be a commodity, because it is comforting to think that we can buy success with a degree.

We can’t.

So it isn’t about job training. It’s about shaping society.

We earnestly send minor children to school. Even the ones who don’t want to be there. Even the ones who get nothing out of it. Even the ones who would make better artists or welders or tailors. We don’t do it so that they’ll be gainfully employed. We do it, and send our taxes to fund it, because we believe it is good for people. We send money to poorer countries so that all children can benefit from schooling. We pat ourselves on the backs for intervening in Afghanistan, because NOW GIRLS CAN GO TO SCHOOL. It’s the most important thing in the world, until you turn eighteen. Then it’s a white-collar vocational institute, and if you want it, you’d better be willing to pay for it. Or go into debt for it. And then you’d better find a practical job, or the little bit that we – UPSTANDING, TAX-PAYING CITIZENS, UNLIKE YOU ENTITLED LEECH-STUDENTS – put into it will have been wasted.

This disgusts me.

It isn’t an investment. I will never be considered a financial success. That’s not why I’m here. I went to college – and came back for graduate school – because thinking is important. I don’t want people running the world who think that only numbers matter. I think that governments should know about the effects of the wars they start, and bankers should know about the famines of the late nineteenth century. They were caused by environmental factors, but it was human involvement and blind allegiance to ideologies of free trade that exacerbated them.

I want everyone to know what exacerbated means.

Likewise, everyone should know how to fix a car engine and sew a dress. Then we can choose a career path not based on money, desperation, or inertia, but based on what we know and like.

I think that bricklayers’ children should be able to study history. That was possible for my father’s generation. I’m not sure that it’s possible for mine, not without shackling oneself to a lifetime of loan repayment.

Access to different kinds of knowledge, and to critical thinking, and to the arts, shouldn’t end at high school.

We’re not investing in job security. We’re creating an educated population that can make its own opportunities.

2 thoughts on “No Golden Tickets

  1. I loved every word of it. But I would like to underscore a few parts that I believe should make it to the highlights:
    “One acquaintance suggested that families should simply have the foresight to save for their children’s education.”
    This is the asumption of a long line of theoreticians dating back to Adam Smith. They always mention human behavior and human nature in amnner that only describes their immediate vicinity, without regard for anyone else. It always makes me wonder if they don’t believe us, the less fortunate to be humans.

    “So it isn’t about job training. It’s about shaping society.”
    Actually there is a part of it that’s about job training. The more people graduating from college means more supply of skilled labor in the market which keeps the pressure for higher wages. But in a broader sense this is also about shaping society. Furthermore, it is shameful that it not us that sends money to African countries but the corporatist governments that want African people to be a little bit more skillful, enough to provide the labor corporations require for their operations in said countries. Ant that is another form of shaping society.

    Last but not least, you say:
    “We’re not investing in job security. We’re creating an educated population that can make its own opportunities.”
    This was the line that said it all. I would like to extend my congratulations as you have nailed it. This is exactly what a corporatist state does not want. “enlightened individuals capable of critical thinking” as George Carlin puts it. This is also why most of the colleges focuses on breeding market oriented white collar slaves. They gave to a generation that raised the generation that stopped Vietnam in US and contributed to welfare state in Europe. They don’t want to repeat that mistake.

    Sorry for the long comment but I was so excited to read your blog that I couldn’t focus on my job and had to say something out loud. Since I am not at a position to write soething that would stand on its own feet at my current state of mind, I decided to share some of my opinions here.

  2. Great post! Very well said!

    “I think that bricklayers’ children should be able to study history. That was possible for my father’s generation. I’m not sure that it’s possible for mine, not without shackling oneself to a lifetime of loan repayment.”

    Indeed.

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