As the capitalist crisis drags on, American workers and young people have begun to fight back against the daily humiliations and injustices which capitalism thrusts on them.
Among these is the devastating burden of costs associated with post-secondary education, which has been a constant topic of slow-burning indignation among the youth.
One of the major points of Bernie Sanders’ presidential platform was to eliminate the cost of tuition in public colleges. This is just one of the reasons he remains the most popular politician in the country, despite his capitulation to the Democratic Party machine. As the ruling class rightly begins to fear for the future of their system, they scramble to co-opt the masses’ demands and turn them into something acceptable and harmless. Of course, something that is harmless to the exploiters, the parasites who feed on our labor and our futures, is rarely something useful for the rest of us. A perfect example is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “Excelsior Scholarship” plan for New York City.
The City University of New York (CUNY), was tuition-free for all those who were accepted between its founding in 1847 to 1975. The end of free CUNY came in at a time when the post-World War II boom came to an abrupt end and the capitalist class was desperate to restore its profit rates. They pressured the government to reduce tax-funded programs, such as welfare, food stamps, unemployment benefits, and public education. This certainly helped those it was intended to help—but was catastrophic for the working class particularly those from its most oppressed layers, whose lives were made that much more precarious. This is an example of what the capitalist state is and whose interests are really behind it.
Cuomo’s plan is presented as though it would “make CUNY free again,” a long-time slogan of activists in the city, but this is far from the truth. One glaring problem with his plan is who it excludes outright, including part-time students and those who are undocumented. Part-time students make up over 35% of the undergraduate population of CUNY, according to the CUNY Office of Institutional Research and Assessment. These are some of the neediest students, as they are often only studying part-time to accommodate long work hours to cover tuition and living costs. Statistics show that over 30% of students work for more than 20 hours per week. The figures for the number of undocumented students are unavailable but is likely not insignificant. Undocumented students are also generally unable to receive state or federal financial aid, meaning that their exclusion from the Excelsior program is a particularly heavy burden.
It has also been pointed out frequently among activists as well as ordinary students that the governor’s plan does not do as much for the poorest students as is claimed. At CUNY, many such students already have significantly reduced or free tuition due to Pell Grants and other government assistance. They mostly struggle with non-tuition costs, such as housing, food, and books, all of which can be overwhelming in a city like New York and which Cuomo’s program doesn’t touch. The greatest benefits will go to the income brackets above these, who already do not have to struggle as hard with the additional costs.
As for those who do not qualify for the plan, tuition may be increased by an additional $1,000 over the next five years. This increase in revenue will be many times more than what is spent on this scholarship. In the meantime, CUNY’s facilities continue to disintegrate, rats and roaches are a familiar sight to students, there are not enough desks for the students in some classes, and we are forced to seek them out in neighboring rooms. And despite the university’s growing revenue, student activities organizations remain unable to access their allotted funds due to bureaucratic maneuvering and red tape.
As if this weren’t bad enough, the scholarship will require that a student takes 30 credits per year—which is well over the requirement to be a full-time student—and maintain a GPA which the school can set as it desires. If performance slips below this for any reason, they will have to pay the now-higher tuition costs. The plan also includes the requirement that, for however many years they received the scholarship, graduates must remain in New York state or else pay back the tuition. Such arbitrariness will rarely align with real students’ lives, which are full of all sorts of unexpected changes in a tight job market that can force people to leave the state or be unemployed.
And in the final analysis, the “lucky” recipients will in effect still be paying for their education, as the state government has ruled out paying for this through higher taxes on the wealthy. It will, therefore, be up to the New York working class to fund the program through taxes.
The truth is that the “Excelsior Scholarship” is a sneaky attempt at austerity, disguised as a reform. For the past few decades, education and other public spending have been under attack by the capitalist class to increase their profits at the expense of the majority. Without serious opposition, this has led to cuts and the loss of services which are often a matter of life and death. The ruling class’ government will not hand out serious reforms out of the goodness of their hearts, and we cannot expect this. They will not listen to our protests; they will tear our petitions to a thousand pieces.
But things need not be this way. It is the workers who are the real power in society, while students are the workers of the future and their natural allies in struggle. We must organize, educate, and mobilize students and all workers against the crushing weight of educational costs and the cynical half-measures the ruling class thinks we will buy. Ultimately, we must organize campus and workplace occupations and strikes to clearly pose the question: “who really runs society?”
Unfortunately, the labor movement has largely sat out the struggle for free, quality universal education. The current leadership is acting as an appendage of the bosses and has not waged an all-out struggle against these attacks on our lives and futures. They are incapable of recognizing that the interests of the capitalists and their state are incompatible with the working class, and that class collaboration always and inevitably ends in defeat.
There is also the problem of political representation which does not yet exist for workers young and old. We need a party independent of the Republicans and Democrats, a mass socialist party which will fight for our interests at the ballot box and on the street. All of these struggles must be combined and will not be easy. But if we fight boldly and seriously, victory is assured.
The right to free education—no catches, no restrictions—will have to be fought for. We have to place responsibility for footing the bill on the bosses. They are sitting on trillions in cash. Their system’s crisis led to this dire situation, and they will have to pay—not us! The IMT’s program calls for lifelong learning for all from the cradle to the grave. The capitalist system is incompatible with the full development of individuals, as it is compelled to prioritize the profit of a few people. Since society is not in our hands, even the reforms we do win can be taken away, as they took away free CUNY in 1975. Only by placing the economy under the democratic control of the working class majority can we make sure the wealth we create is used to benefit everyone.