Working people are afraid of embracing free public college and student loan forgiveness because they've been conditioned to fear anything that looks like a "handout." But most working class people don’t see what I saw first hand at RISD: the rich get handouts all the time. They’re just not regarded as such.
RISD Graduation photo 2015. Stickers courtesy of Giphy.
"The best colleges in Madrid are the free ones,” said seventeen-year-old Ainhoa (ay-know-ah), a spirited girl with a thoroughly Basque name, indicative of her mother’s roots. My mom and I were sitting around her family’s kitchen table with her father, Juan, his wife Cristina, and their two younger daughters. “People go to private universities, but they’re just not as good,” she shrugged. The Pardos lived in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. They had a comfortable living, and yet the cost of an American education for their three daughters was daunting. Four years ago they returned to their native Madrid.
Their nostalgia for New York was palpable. A clock with a screen print of the Empire State Building hung behind their youngest. Juan sighed when he recounted their favorite restaurants in the city. Cristina lamented that much doesn’t change in Madrid; she returned to find the same man on her corner asking for cigarettes. But the Pardos don’t miss everything. “We loved New York, but I couldn’t imagine sending all of the girls to college in the States,” said Juan.
Sitting across from Ainhoa, I couldn't help but notice how different her demeanor was from college-bound seniors in the States. She possessed a kind of ease that I hadn't seen before. She wasn't without school pressure — she spent the morning studying — but she had an assuredness about college that I didn't have my senior year of high school.
A Young Bootstrapper
I received a full tuition scholarship to attend the Rhode Island School of Design in 2011. Without exaggeration, I can say that I started working towards it in the fourth grade. Anyone that is familiar with the New York City public school system knows that your academic performance actually matters when you're ten years old. I was so thoroughly a nerd that I thought putting off homework to watch Little House on the Prairie reruns after school was indulgent. I went through junior high and high school with the same unwavering focus, except I ditched Little House — partying and dating became indulgent.
My scholarship restored my mom's faith in American meritocracy. My mom had me at nineteen and was given a hard time for having a kid so young. At twenty-one, she was kicked out of my grandfather’s apartment and struggled to find housing. Over the first five years of my life, my mom worked hard to “break the cycle.” Her first big job was at a law firm, a secretary job in midtown Manhattan. She didn't take lunch the first few weeks because she couldn’t afford it. But over the next ten years she worked her way up various managerial jobs and made a nice living for us. Then the 2008 recession hit. We moved into a one bedroom with one of our cousins and started from scratch.
And yet, there I was, college-bound, the first in my family. A personification of the American dream. My mom banged pots and pans when I got in. We had recently moved out of our cousin's place and were living in a one bedroom, fourth floor walk up above a cafe. My mom screamed out the window, “My daughter got into RISD!” We were over the moon. Later that night, in a sobering comedown, we cried not knowing how I was going to pay for it. Lucky for me, my scholarship letter came in a few days later and we celebrated again. RISD was the premier art school in the country and I earned the right to be there. Little did I know, I was going to spend the next four years trying to prove it to myself.
Just two months before my college graduation, I suffered a serious nervous breakdown. I was one hundred and seven pounds (normally I’m around one twenty-five) and I was having frequent panic attacks. I became so obsessive over my senior degree project that I would forget to eat. The project just wasn’t good enough, no matter what anyone told me. It was nearly done but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I had to stay home in Brooklyn for a month so that my family could take care of me. I even considered sitting out my graduation; something that would have been unimaginable to me in the past. My friends, other scholarship students who I unknowingly gravitated toward freshman year, often warned me that I would burn out. After four years of overexerting myself, I finally did.
With the support of my professors and family, I managed to finish my degree project and walk for graduation. Two days later, I started my first job. Despite my full tuition scholarship, I graduated with $38,000 in loans and repayment started six months after graduation. So I graduated on a Saturday, had a quick celebratory dinner and drove home that night to start my job on Monday. Most people advised me against it, given the year that I had, but that didn’t matter.
I got a job. I broke the cycle. I graduated college. I “earned it." But when I started to follow the career trajectories of some of my classmates, something became clear to me that I had been denying while I was in school. Not everyone had to earn it in quite the same way.
One of my classmates was gifted a company upon graduation. A child to the owner of a massive name brand, this student opted to pay my friend three hundred dollars to complete an assignment for them freshman year. They designed a piece but didn’t feel like putting the actual labor into making it. It goes without saying that actually making your piece is an essential part of art school.
This particular student wasn’t an anomaly. There were plenty of students who paid to have their pieces completed or professionally done with the help of daddy’s money. This isn't news to anyone; especially now when so many wealthy parents are getting busted for bribing college admission boards into accepting their mediocre children. I knew that my wealthy classmates had opportunities handed to them. What irked me was that my classmate's freshly-minted company wasn't deemed a "handout." In the States, massive generational wealth goes largely unquestioned. Instead, only programs for the working class, like free public college and student loan forgiveness, are deemed handouts.
"We have to start confronting the rich — who we will never be — and stop trampling the dispossessed — who we will surely becomE."
My family doesn't understand why I would support free public college or student loan forgiveness with everything I went through. It's four years later and seventy percent of my loans are paid off. My uncle recently asked, “You worked your ass off in school to keep your grades up. You worked your ass off to pay off the loans. Doesn’t it bother you that people might get it for free?”
It bothers me that I had to pay a minimum of $300 a month for the past four years because I have a 5% interest rate on my loans. It bothers me that I could’ve put that money into a down payment on an apartment or into a retirement fund. It bothers me that Nelnet, just one of my loan providers, made $24.6 million in profits in just their second quarter this year. But the idea that someone could get a degree without crippling student loan debt doesn’t bother me at all. Because that’s exactly what my wealthy classmates got from their parents.
I Blame Biggie
Working class families like mine extol struggle because it’s the only way they’ve achieved anything of worth. They don’t want to be told that their hardship was unnecessary. They don’t want to be told that a country like Spain whose GDP is $1.3 trillion — 6% of the United States’ whopping $19.3 trillion — still manages to provide free healthcare and college to its citizens.
We’ve been taught that adversity builds character and character built on struggle is a formidable opponent. Because if you invalidate working class struggle then you risk invalidating the working class itself. So instead of getting to the root of why we struggle, we cling to our blue-collar identity, one of grit and self-reliance. We’re wary of any government assistance, of anything that is “free.” Who wants a handout? Surely only lazy people.
(Wu-Tang's ODB - "Why wouldn't you want to get free money?")
Most working class people don’t see what I saw first hand at RISD: the rich get handouts all the time. They’re just not regarded as such. We assume that the wealthy work just as hard, if not harder, than we do. We assume that they’re smarter than us. After being forced to work on an art history paper with my aforementioned classmate, I can assure you that despite their affluence, they were not.
When we look at someone like Jeff Bezos, we see a daring entrepreneur who took a chance and now has a networth of $110.2 billion. We don’t see the $300,000 handout his parents gave him to kickstart Amazon. Or the yearly handout the federal government gives him by not taxing Amazon. Or the handout his own workers give him by accepting a meager wage of $15/hr to his $8,961,187/hr.
(the math checks out)
In a brilliant maneuver, corporate elites have managed to shift the target of working class ire from people like Bezos to the disenfranchised. Apparently we don’t have the money for free public college because there are people out there who abuse the system. We blame elusive “Welfare Queens” for the lack of free services instead of people like Bezos who hoard wealth in the name of free enterprise. We fawn when they decide to share a pittance of their fortune with foundations of their choosing (ahem, Bill Gates) instead of supporting a wealth tax that would better the lives of all Americans.
Why do we rush to defend billionaires like Bezos? Because we think we’re just one lotto ticket away from being Bezos. Who wants to infringe on Bezos’ billions when they could be your billions one day? It’s a delusion founded on a defunct American promise of social mobility, which Americans largely overestimate. Americans are far less likely to achieve upward mobility than western Europeans and yet we take a few rags to riches stories and assume that it applies to the larger population (as a Brooklynite, I blame Biggie). We’re still holding out for the thing that’ll make us rich. But as the tweet above reveals, we will never make Amazon money — or even achieve modest affluence — putting in an honest days work.
We have the money to invest in free public college. But we, the working class, have to start confronting the rich — who we will never be — and stop trampling the dispossessed — who we will surely become if we don’t dismantle corporate greed.
"Celebratin' every day, no more public housin'
Thinkin' back on my one-room shack
Now my mom pimps a Ac' with minks on her back
And she loves to show me off of course
Smiles every time my face is up in The Source
We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us
No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us
Birthdays was the worst days
Now we sip Champagne when we thirsty"
- "Juicy" by Notorious B.I.G.
The Philosopher Plumber
Ainhoa still has to get good grades in order to get into the college of her choice. Just like students in France, Germany, Sweden, Greece, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, she has to — sorry, not just European countries — Brazil, Argentina, Panama, Uruguay, Egypt, Turkey, Kenya, Malaysia, and Iceland — work hard in order to gain admittance into college.
Free tuition doesn’t mean that students are automatically enrolled in higher education (though one can dream). College admissions are just as competitive and not without stress. We’re not going to have a shortage of electricians, plumbers, and sanitation workers simply because we’re expanding access to higher education. Some people just want to grab their high school diploma and never set foot in a classroom again, opting instead for a civil service exam. And that is just as valuable.
Expanding access to college just means that we actually give poor and working class students a debt-free path to higher education, without making them step over each other for a limited number of selective scholarships. Free public college would give us the opportunity to actually be the socially mobile country we think we are.
But I’d like to take it a step further and ask, is it outrageous to think that a plumber should also be able to throw down in a philosophical debate? We’re limiting ourselves by drawing distinctions between intellectuals and civil servants and that is largely due to the restrictive cost of college. A few years of college would benefit all of us, no matter what vocation you end up in.
(Even murderous Tony Soprano gets it.)
One of the most valuable things I learned at RISD is that not all knowledge needs to be commodified. College isn’t just job training. It’s purpose is not to enfeeble you and make you the indebted, obedient worker your boss would love. It’s true aim should be to cultivate a well-rounded, discerning individual. Making public colleges free would liberate students to not just seek a direct return on their investment, but to develop parts of themselves that they neglected in the interest of becoming a dutiful worker.
I learned this lesson inadvertently, as RISD was the first time I was surrounded by wealthy students who didn’t grow up in a paycheck to paycheck home. The working class has been conditioned to reflexively ask, what am I going to use this for? We don’t have the resources to indulge in the superfluous. So what happens as a result? We say, I don’t need this. Liberals call it anti-intellectualism but really it’s a defensive reaction to being denied these things our whole lives.
I offer my highly personal struggle my senior year of college not for sympathy, nor to suggest that I struggled more than anyone else, but to show that someone who idealized the American dream, who embodied a bootstrapper mentality, has become disenchanted with it. We work so much harder, so much longer than not only the top 1%, but the top 5% of this country ($250K a year is not middle class), and we receive little in exchange. They accumulated their wealth by depriving us of fair wages, so it's only fair that we start reclaiming our share by investing in free public college.
American exceptionalism has failed us. It told us that we need to struggle in order to earn higher education. It told us that we need to toil in order to become successful. And worst of all, it told us that we need to blame the dispossessed if we can't get there. If we were truly exceptional, higher education wouldn't be a luxury. It would be a right, like it is in so many other countries.
If you need those countries again, they are:
France, Germany, Sweden, Greece, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Argentina, Panama, Uruguay, Egypt, Turkey, Kenya, Malaysia, and Iceland.
Amanda Hanna-McLeer is an anti-capitalist writer and director. She credits half of the references in this article to the experience of having a rapper for a father.