Each semester, in my course on prisons and education I ask my undergraduate students to play a little game with me called “step into the circle.” We use the activity to reveal the social systems that have shaped who we are and how we see the world. In the circle we share the truths that connect us and reveal our differences: who has experienced violence, who has been arrested, who has a loved one in prison, and at some point I always ask the group to step into the circle if they will have student loan debt when they graduate college. About half of my young social justice-minded students step into the middle of the circle with a heavy sigh, shoulders slumping forward, as if they can already feel the weight of that promissory note come to terms on their backs.
My students are not alone. New Yorkers carry upwards of $66.5 billion in student loan debt to achieve their dream of a college degree. Many of those students are people of color from communities hardest hit by all the consequences of poverty. They know better than anyone that a college education is vital to finding a job and being able to sustain a family. Yet for many the financial burden is crushing, even if they are lucky enough to land a full time job, in those initial years out of college. Add to the mix that our country is in the midst of an economic crisis, with a stagnant job market, and student loan debt has become a hot button issue that ought to come with a “trigger warning” when introducing the topic into policy conversations.
So in February when three Republican Congressmen decided to introduce a bill called “Kids Before Cons” they had to have known that emotion would quickly supersede the research that demonstrates that access to education is a successful tool for reducing the rates at which people return to prison. In the long run, education programs could save us millions of dollars that could be reinvested right back into our education system. Yet, in the name of indebted students, Governor Cuomo’s plan to fund college credit bearing education programs in 10 New York State prisons was ditched within a month of his celebratory announcement.
Now we’re all left with nothing. No funding for education programs in prisons. Students forced to lend their names to a shameful fear-mongering campaign, are also left empty handed. Where is your interest rate reduction or increased tuition assistance, kids? Meanwhile, people with criminal records are saddled with something much worst then student loans, a lifetime negotiating the legally discriminatory barriers to re-entry. The only people to benefit from this egregious ploy is upstate Republicans who reap the spoils of the prison industry that keeps food on the table for many of their constituents. They can pat themselves on the back for an easy political win; a victory fueled by emotion, fear, and bad politics.
We’ve already wasted too many years letting our political leaders get away with posturing behind “tough on crime” policies that are politically expedient but morally deficient. We need to hold our representatives accountable for expanding access to education for everyone no matter where they live or who they are. That includes people serving time inside of New York’s prisons and high school students who worry that they cannot afford to attend college, because this is an issue that affects all of us.
So “step into the circle” if you think it is wrong that your taxpayer dollars will go to sustaining a prison system that sends people out in the world without any of the tools they need to succeed? If so, I suggest you call your congressperson and tell them: “Not in your name”, the burden of the student loan debt is enough. We do not want to carry the moral burden of a punishment system that is a revolving door for those that we refuse to educate.
Faculty member, NYU Gallatin School