Why won’t our Black political class fight for free tuition here?
If you depend on TV and the corporate news outlets in your town you probably missed the news that this summer Germany made college tuition free for everybody, including foreign students. That’s right, free. We’re not talking about socialist Cuba here, or third world Sri Lanka here, we’re talking Germany, the most capitalist of all European countries other than Britain. And we’re talking free.
It says a lot that the news was not covered at all in the corporate press or broadcast media on this side of the water. Even more tellingly, the liberal academics and think tanks like the Center For American Progress and Black outfits like the United Negro College Fund, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, National Action Network and others have nothing to say on the subject.
Is free tuition even possible?
Of course it is. It’s not just possible, free tuition at the nation’s public colleges and universities would actually cost LESS than the federal government now pays to those institutions, according Department of Education stats quoted in two very useful articles by Jordan Weismann in The Atlantic in 2013 and 2014. Public colleges and universities, he points out, account for 75 percent of college grads while sub-prime, for-profit colleges, which are basically machines that capture low-income students and walk them through applications for subsidized guaranteed loans that account for a tiny percentage of grads but eat a full quarter of all the federal aid dollars.
The skyrocketing cost of tuition has hit nobody harder than African American families. Our glittering, successful and tirelessly self-promoting Black political class never tires of telling the Black masses that education is the way out of poverty. But you have not and you will not hear a word from the Jesse Jacksons or the Al Sharptons, or the Urban League or the NAACP, and certainly not from Black college presidents, or the United Negro College Fund on how much our people have to gain by following the example of Germany. It’s not even on their horizon.
What the eyes and hearts of Black college presidents, and civil rights leaders are fixed upon is not making higher education affordable for all who want it. They don’t seem to care either about lifting the decades-long debt sentence that often goes with attempting a college education, whether you complete it or not. Key members of the Congressional Black Caucus sell their vote on a regular basis to the sub-prime, for-profit college racketeers, and under President Obama the Department of Education has become dependent on the billions each year that it collects in student loan repayment, a great chunk of it from the sub-prime, for-profit colleges which get paid for how many students they enroll, not how many they graduate.
Back in June, I wrote about how the United Negro College Fund, another tentacle of our Black political class, chose, instead of fighting the political decisions to continue cutbacks in direct aid and in loans that go to students attending historically Black colleges with a political campaign to make college tuition free for everyone, to double down on its dependence upon the charity of fickle white philanthropists, namely the infamous Koch Brothers.
Thanks to the United Negro College Fund, the Koch Brothers will literally be able to dictate what faculty are hired and promoted and which courses are taught at historically Black colleges and universities. Other tentacles of the Koch Brothers vampire squid are pushing for the bans on teaching primary and secondary school students about climate change. What restrictions would folks like these apply to Black colleges and universities? What gags and limitations will the institutions put on themselves to keep the money?
The money is there to forgive all outstanding student loans and do as the Germans do, make public college tuition free for everybody. What’s not there, is number one, the political will on the part of white and Black leadership, and number two, a long-term grassroots mobilization—a popular movement demanding the reallocation of the nation’s resources in this way. It’s do-able financially, it’s advantageous socially. And it’s not even remotely revolutionary. Germany is a capitalist country.
Why doesn’t our Black political class see this as an opportunity?
That’s an easy question. Our Black political class of politicians, preachers, business drones, academics and empowered wannabees are jelly makers, not tree shakers, selfish and shortsighted jelly makers at that. Their definition of an opportunity is something somebody in authority has already put on the table. This ain’t on no table they know of, it’s not even discussed in the building where they have that table, so for them it’s not worth thinking about. Besides, a long-term self-aware, 24-7 grassroots movement is, as Glen Ford has observed, a mortal threat to their brand of leadership, which only wants the masses mobilized just enough to vote Democratic in election years and then go home.
The opportunity for a successful mass movement is there. But it’s a challenge that can only be taken up by a new generation of Black leadership, not blinkered and bound by obligations to the existing political system, to corporate philanthropy, to our backward-thinking prosperity gospel preachers or our self-seeking Black business class. Free tuition won’t make anybody rich, but it will build collective wealth, community wealth—a concept outside the universe of the current Black political class.
The challenge is there. Who will take it up? Who will begin to organize for free tuition, for the right to an education? We already know who won’t.
—Black Agenda Report, October 8, 2014