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Is the path to the good life through higher education? A recent Bloomberg report revealed that the average oldest millennial is more than $20,000 poorer in net worth than the oldest baby boomers were at the same age. One of the biggest contributing factors to this generational wealth gap is student debt, which has skyrocketed over the last two decades and looks set to continue growing. Even as college has become more expensive, its effect on the standard of living has increased: as Bloomberg reports, college-educated millennials now earn 113% more than their non-college-educated peers, while the earnings gap between college-educated and non-college-educated baby boomers was only 57%.
Statistics like this reflect that college is one of the main drivers of inequality in America today: A college education remains expensive enough that student debt can impoverish borrowers decades after graduation. But it is still valuable enough that many people choose to attend despite the financial burden. The unaffordable cost of a college education harms students and it also hurts teachers. As graduate student workers and union leaders, we have observed the troubling state of American higher education firsthand. Our union’s members, Ph.D. students at Brown University, teach many students who either pay or borrow enormous sums to attend an elite, private, four-year institution, while many of us will ourselves be paying off loans from our bachelor’s degrees for the foreseeable future. Even as the price tag for a college diploma has gotten heftier, careers in higher education have become less likely to lead to a living wage, let alone to paying off debt or saving money. According to a 2018 analysis, only one out of every four college instructors is tenured or on the tenure track. The rest are short-term, casual labor or graduate students like us.
Recognizing that college has become a driver of inequality means confronting three related social crises: College is too expensive, student debt prevents college graduates from eventually attaining economic security, and academic labor conditions are bad and getting worse. President Joe Biden has rightly made expanding access to college a priority, but his current proposal under the American Families Plan to make community college free for two years nationwide, increase federal aid for low-income students, and expand support for HBCUs, Tribal Colleges, and other Minority-Serving Institutions addresses just the first of these issues and does so incompletely. Meanwhile, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Pramila Jayapal have introduced legislation called the College for All Act that would comprehensively transform higher education.
The bill proposes making college affordable for everyone by entirely eliminating tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities for households with an annual income of $125,000 or less and would make community college tuition-free. Unlike Biden’s plan, which focuses primarily on two-year institutions, the College for All Act promises to reshape the entire higher education landscape by investing massively in public universities across the country. This piece of legislation tackles these compounded costs of attending college by doubling maximum Pell Grant amounts and allowing students to use Pell Grants to cover living expenses, like room and board. This measure addresses the root causes of new student debt by not only eliminating tuition costs but also containing added expenses that make college unaffordable and force students to take on heavier debt loads. Biden’s bill would make attending college an easier accomplishment for some, but the Sanders and Jayapal proposal would, as its name promises, enshrine postsecondary education as a fundamental right for all.
The College for All Act is revolutionary in its recognition that college instructors’ working conditions are college students’ learning conditions. Sanders’s and Jayapal’s bill mandates that any college or university receiving federal funding must have 75% of its courses taught by tenured or tenure-track instructors within five years. This massive investment in secure jobs for college faculty would significantly reduce temporary academic employment and bring many college instructors into the middle class. It would also establish a stable base of teaching and research staff for students entering college, a support system that undergraduates need to learn and thrive.
When universities choose to eliminate tenure-track positions and replace them with casualized or part-time teaching instead, that disinvestment harms students. A 2018 study found that while adjuncts can contribute to positive student outcomes in introductory classes, students who take courses with adjuncts are less likely to continue in the discipline compared to students who take courses with full-time faculty, seemingly regardless of their instructors’ experience and credentials. In other words, casual teachers may not be able to develop long-term relationships with their students. Even so, adjunct faculty work overtime to navigate the challenges of contingent employment and still deliver quality instruction. They do this while struggling to gain a foothold in a profession that demands uncompensated work for publishing, peer-reviewing, editing, professional development, and presenting at conferences — all required pieces of an academic career.
The College for All Act also engages with key concerns about racial equity in higher education, even as it secures the universal right to college. By providing $1.3 billion per year to HBCUs and Minority-Serving Institutions, the bill promises to minimize the vast gap between these essential institutions and their far wealthier and primarily whiter peers. The bill’s provisions strengthening and protecting tenure promises to open the professoriate to more people of color as well, correcting a serious lack of diversity among college professors. Even as the professoriate at large has made steps toward diversifying, the ranks of tenured and tenure-track academics have remained primarily white and male. This imbalance reflects the persistent effects of racism and misogyny in hiring and retention and also testifies to the determinative power of generational wealth for a successful academic career.
While attaining a college education remains more important than ever, our current university system favors wealthy institutions as public institutions rely increasingly on tuition and fees, donations, or private sector partnerships to make ends meet. Those who cannot make the math work have enacted serious budget cuts, shuttered whole departments and programs, and scaled back scholastic offerings. Such a competitive atmosphere makes public universities more and more like private colleges — likelier to prioritize the needs and desires of rich donors and politically connected board members over the needs of the students, faculty, and other university staff who make universities work. As boards and administrators accumulate unilateral power and undermine collective governance, higher education fails to fulfill its democratizing mission.
Only the College for All Act promises to tackle all three parts of the college accessibility crisis and help move this country toward true equality of opportunity. By proposing to pay for the bill through a tax on Wall Street speculation, Sanders and Jayapal ensure that those who have benefited the most from our economic system will help future generations to succeed as well. Senate Democrats have an unprecedented chance to rebuild our higher education system to make it more equitable and substantial by including the College for All Act in the infrastructure package they hope to pass this year. If they really want to make good on their promise to build back better, they should waste no time in doing so.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue