Why Is College So Expensive? Blame The Powell Memorandum

I spent some time recently listening to the Powell Memorandum, courteously read aloud by the Attack Ads podcast: http://attackads.libsyn.com/the-powell-memo

If you have some time to kill and a strong stomach, it’s a fascinating document to listen to all the way through.

The Powell memorandum struck a paranoid tone that the “free enterprise” system was a under merciless and sustained assault centered mainly on collage campuses. I had not realized the extent to which the Powell Memorandum specifically focuses the spotlight on America’s higher education system as the prime source of discontent. If you take the memorandum’s argument seriously, Americas universities were virtual leftist madrassahs inculcating revolutionary fervor in America’s youth and doing it on corporate America’s dime. According to Powell, Communist firebrands were barnstorming the country brainwashing America’s youth to overthrow the free enterprise system and inculcating contempt for its core institutions. College campuses were nothing less than an injection system for radical ideas into the body politic, funded by corporate America itself, and they needed to be stopped, or else the free enterprise system was doomed!:

“Yale, like every other major college, is graduating scores of bright young men who are practitioners of ‘the politics of despair.’ These young men despise the American political and economic system . . . (their) minds seem to be wholly closed. They live, not by rational discussion, but by mindless slogans.” A recent poll of students on 12 representative campuses reported that: “Almost half the students favored socialization of basic U.S. industries.”

A visiting professor from England at Rockford College gave a series of lectures entitled “The Ideological War Against Western Society,” in which he documents the extent to which members of the intellectual community are waging ideological warfare against the enterprise system and the values of western society. In a foreword to these lectures, famed Dr. Milton Friedman of Chicago warned: “It (is) crystal clear that the foundations of our free society are under wide-ranging and powerful attack — not by Communist or any other conspiracy but by misguided individuals parroting one another and unwittingly serving ends they would never intentionally promote.”

Powell makes corporate America out to be like a cuckolded husband, underwriting the very people who sought to destroy it. In other words, corporations were funding their own demise. Imagine if Star Wars’ rebel alliance were cashing checks signed by Darth Vader. He chides big business for being “apathetic” to the gathering storm developing on college campuses:

One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction.The campuses from which much of the criticism emanates are supported by (i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.

The message was clear: education was a threat to big business. This led to the radical divestment of big business from education, part of the overall “revolt” against taxes which precipitated a dramatic shrinking of all of America’s public institutions (except military/security and corporate welfare) across the board.

In the public sector, which educates 80 percent of American students, state funding hit a peak in 1980 and has been falling ever since…[1] If states had continued to support public higher education at the rate they had in 1980, they would have invested at least an additional $500 billion in their university systems, according to an analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.That’s an amount roughly equal to the outstanding student debt now held by those who enrolled in public colleges and universities.[2]

[1] http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/13/how-the-financing-of-colleges-may-lead-to-disaster/
[2] https://www.revealnews.org/article/who-got-rich-off-the-student-debt-crisis/

The Powell Memorandum is, of course, the impetus for the creation of all of the subsequent right-wing think-tanks (AEI, Cato, ALEC), propaganda news outlets (FOX, talk radio), foundations (Bradley, Heritage etc.), astroturf groups (Tea Party) and the like. But the extent to which all that was driven by what was happening on America’s college campuses in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s is often overlooked. What is also overlooked is why this led to America’s spectacularly expensive and wasteful education system.

***

One of the reasons there was so much protest in Universities was that almost anyone could go. College was not prohibitively expensive before 1980. Places like the University of California–whose Berkeley campus was synonymous with anti-war protests and leftist ideas–was practically free. It became an attractor to intellectual, independent youth from all over the country who came into contact with each other and could form a critical mass of opposition. The Vietnam War was a major driver of this. Colleges were safe havens from the draft.

It’s hard to believe today, given the apathy on collage campuses, but there was a very real concern in the days of Cold War paranoia that the intellectual ferment on campuses was an existential threat to capitalism itself. As Powell’s paranoia above indicates, corporate businessmen and right-wing politicians were genuinely scared and on the defensive.

Richard Nixon cannily realized that all the concern over bombing those poor brown people in Vietnam had nothing to do with selfless concern for others; what the students were really protesting was that their privileged white asses might be sent over to die in the jungle via the draft. In other words, they were protesting the draft and feigning concern for peace and justice and all that. So he got rid of the draft, and, just as he had predicted, the protests petered out and eventually ceased.

But then, how would America get troops for its military?

By divesting public support for education through taxes and replacing them with student loans—debt servitude—students would no longer be questioning the system, but instead be trying to get into the system as quickly as possible in order to pay off their huge debt burdens. Student loans were a way of “disciplining” students, so they wouldn’t have time to question the system, as Noam Chomsky points out:

“Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society, Chomsky suggested. “When you trap people in a system of debt they can’t afford the time to think.” Tuition fee increases are a “disciplinary technique,” and, by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the “disciplinarian culture.” This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.”

Mission accomplished.

It also served a second purpose. Because military service would fund higher education, it would drive students from poorer backgrounds to serve in America’ foreign wars. Originally, the G.I. Bill was to help returning World War Two veterans (which most college-age men were) fund a higher education so as to bring about a more educated and—the thinking went—more productive workforce. This was to compete with the Soviet threat (where everything was theoretically state-funded).

But what they had also done was accidentally stumble upon the perfect way to get plenty of recruits without having a draft and without any protest. As education costs soared into the stratosphere, more and more people would sign up “of their own free will” to get government money to pay the enormous costs burdens of that education. No reason to protest – there’s no draft. Students from affluent backgrounds didn’t have to worry, they could afford the higher education costs. And the military service option would make America’s wildly expensive college seem “just.” Can’t afford to pay? Just put on uniform and head overseas!

It was diabolically brilliant. Another mission accomplished.

Fast forward nearly forty years. Now students are told they must get a “valuable” degree that pays dividends. Anyone wasting time studying anything not “practical” has only themselves to blame. College is all about ROI (return on investment). Students are spending all their time studying, especially if they are from poorer backgrounds, to “compete” in the harsh job market upon graduation. Who has time for protests when you’re studying all day and working a job at night to get through college? Besides, a black mark on your rerecord will make you unemployable, a serious problem when you’ve got tens of thousands of dollars in debt hanging over your head before you even graduate.

The coup-de-grace of this movement is the push to completely eliminate liberal arts studies from college campuses, and make universities solely for the education of STEM topics (science, technology, engineering, math). Students in STEM courses are not a threat to the “private enterprise” system. No one in engineering or medical school is going to learn about alternative economic theory or America’s foreign policy, nor do they care. The protestors at Berkeley and elsewhere were probably not engineering/science majors after all.

Florida’s…governor, Rick Scott, wants more of the state’s youths to pick up college degrees… but only if the degrees are useful to corporations and don’t teach students to question social norms. “You know what? They need to get education in areas where they can get jobs,” Scott told a …radio host Monday morning. He continued:

“You know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on. Those type of degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

He explained the strategy Monday in a separate interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:

Scott said Monday that he hopes to shift more funding to science, technology, engineering and math departments, the so-called “STEM” disciplines. The big losers: Programs like psychology and anthropology and potentially schools like New College in Sarasota that emphasize a liberal arts curriculum.

“If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs,” Scott said. “So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.”

“Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”

Rick Scott to Liberal Arts Majors: Drop Dead (Mother Jones)

This was all part of the Neoliberal revolution on college campuses. As the Guardian summed up the situation, “Higher education is stuffed with overpaid administrators squeezing every ounce of efficiency out of lecturers and focusing on the ‘profitable’ areas of science, technology, engineering and maths. Are the humanities at risk of being wiped out?”

The emphasis on STEM degrees means that collage campuses will not be places where the system is questioned, just vocational schools were compliant corporate drones will be reliably churned out. After all, you probably won’t be questioning the system if you’re in engineering or nursing school. Economics education has been taken over by Neoliberal ideas and free-market fundamentalism–academics who even mention Marx (except as ridicule) are exiled. And rather than genuine protests, affluent students spent their time bickering over nonsense like “trigger alerts” and “safe words” and gender/sexual identity issues egged on by the corporate media echo chamber. The New Left was cleverly used to neuter the Old Left, supported by corporate America. Powell would be proud.

Republicans’ inherent hostility to higher education can be illustrated by a revealing anecdote. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker attempted to rewrite the “Wisconsin Idea”–a largely symbolic statement that guided the mission of University of Wisconsin system. Walker famously not only cut 300 million dollars of support for this formerly world-class institution (while simultaneously funding a new stadium for the Milwaukee Bucks), but also stealthy attempted to rewrite the Wisconsin Idea with new corporate-friendly language slipped into the bill:

In Section 1111 of Walker’s proposed budget legislation, Senate Bill 21, he strikes language specifying that the UW has a public service mission to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campus” and to “serve and stimulate society.”

Walker adds “to meet the state’s workforce needs” as a core mission of the university.

Walker also strikes language ensuring that the mission of the UW is to extend “training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition,” as well as the language: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

Scott Walker removes ‘Wisconsin Idea’ from UW’s mission in budget bill (updated) (The Capitol Times)

“Searching for truth” is the last thing these guys want. Neither do they care about “improving the human condition.” And they certainly don’t want people with the time or inclination to think for themselves.

A public outcry derailed his plans. But the story itself is telling. There is really no reason for messing with this statement besides pure ideology. What is that ideology? A hostility to free thinking and a desire for education to be nothing more than a handmaiden to serve big business. Wildly costly education serves that purpose nicely. Debt serfs don’t question.

Powell would surely approve.

In other words, cutting funding for higher education and student debt was all part of the plan since the 1970’s. Now you can see why “free education” is such a threat to the authoritarian structure of the United States. Corporate America spent decades putting down the insurrection on college campuses, and they surely don’t want to go thorough that again.

So, given their hostility to higher education, why do businesses universally require degrees for everything from CEO to janitor?

One reason is what we saw above – they want people to be struggling and in debt. Struggling people don’t have time to think or criticize; they’re too busy just trying to survive. They will be docile, compliant workers, because they are essentially indentured servants. Student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Their fear will keep them in line. There are bills to pay, and delinquent loans will ruin your credit rating.

Another is something called “signaling.” A degree is a way to say, “I’ll jump through any arbitrary hoops in order to climb the ladder.” I’m a docile, obedient worker, hire me!” It’s a social marker more than anything else.

Requiring a degree is one of the last remaining forms of legal workplace discrimination. A degree is a way of filtering out people and making sure only the “right” candidates apply (from affluent backgrounds, white, etc.) and are hired.

But the main factor driving this trend is the fact that today’s corporations just don’t need that many educated workers anymore. Thanks to the Neoliberal “disciplining” of labor, and the rise of the “service” economy, the majority of jobs now pay a pittance wage–barely enough to survive on. So this will drive people to struggle to acquire a degree—just like people will purchase lottery tickets no matter the cost—in the hope of getting a leg up on the competition for the few remaining jobs that pay a decent wage. This allows corporations to divest  from funding higher education and yet still have plenty of willing, educated workers banging down their door. And besides, in the global economy, corporations can sponge off of the education systems of other countries, hiring qualified workers from all over the world. Not willing to do what it takes? Well, then, you have only yourself to blame. Why invest in “American” education anymore in a global economy? America’s students are on their own. Training costs are now entirely borne by the workers/government, even as corporations constantly moan about “socialism” (another legacy of the memorandum).

For all of the above reasons, costly college is not a bug; it’s a feature. It serves so many simultaneous purposes for the elites. And I didn’t even mention the gravy train loans are for the financial sector, since they are backed by government (and hence low risk). It’s not likely they’re going to do anything about any of this without a fight.

BONUS: Good interview with Chomsky on education.

8 thoughts on “Why Is College So Expensive? Blame The Powell Memorandum

  1. I’ve been aware of this awful truth for quite some time, but it’s good to see this information well articulated. (I was lucky enough to get through college before Reagan and the rise of neoliberalism, so no student debt for me.)

    Young Americans expect now to be saddled with debt if they want to go to college, as if that’s the way it’s always been and always will be. That’s sad.

    However, alternatives can be found. For example, young people are sneaking away to Italy or Germany for a good and inexpensive college education, and sometimes they stay in Europe after graduation because life is so much better there.

  2. Another aspect of the change–tuition isn’t seen as “taxes” but are fungible in state budgets with general revenue. Tuition increases in effect paid for the increased use of prisons, for example, without state policymakers having to risk tax revolt wrath. And achieving the neoliberal purposes you’ve discussed here through the growth of incarceration and other correctional supervisions and its privatization (see GA’s extensive use of private probation for nonprison privatizing) .

  3. Yes. This side of the pond we have a strange reverse psychology where STEM is promoted as a poor unloved ‘ugly duckling’ subject. We used to have a two-tier system of generally abstract, free-thinking ‘universities’ and generally concrete, vocational ‘polytechnics’. Mr. Blair had the bright idea of calling them all ‘universities’ to make everyone feel good, and then turning them all into polytechnics, to serve his political agenda.

  4. Hm. A strange take, though all that stuff about debt enslavement seems spot on. Are you saying that all the New Left baloney about microaggressions and deplatforming and anti-white males hostility and contempt for free speech is also engineered by people like Powell? The New Left as a weapon of the neocons?! I’d never heard that before, but it is a damn interesting thought.

  5. Idk Escape, wouldn’t there be red plastic cups scattered everywhere around these locations? Or at least a lot of Broken Bottles?

    Outstanding tl:dr (in one sitting
    Your Biggest Fan

  6. Aha! I’ve been wondering why the stats for my Bonus Powell Memo Episode were higher. Nice write up. So good, in fact, if you would be so kind, I would like permission….

    I’m expanding the simple reading of the memo into a series on Powell and the details found in the memo itself. I haven’t yet reached the exhaustive content held in the memo when it comes to the college campus, but many of your observations shed light on directions taken by those perhaps directly influenced by the Man Himself (most notably escalator clauses that raised college tuitions slowly enough to avoid scrutiny or revolt).

    Thanks for an interesting write-up. Oh, and LJ misses you!

    Jim, Your Ad Attacker
    aka Peristaltor

    • Thanks, but I doubt my little blog cold be responsible for any bump in listeners! Then again, I don’t really read the metrics…

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