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Butch Hancock, one of Austin’s finest singer-songwriters, grew up in the Texas Panhandle, out among dry-land farmers and strict fundamentalist Christians. Butch once told me that he felt he’d been permanently scarred in his vulnerable teen years by the local culture’s puritanical preaching on sexual propriety: “They told us that sex is filthy, obscene, wicked, and beastly — and that we should save it for someone we love.”

Today, America’s higher education complex approaches students with the same sort of convoluted logic that guided Butch’s sex education: “A college degree is the key to prosperity for both you and your country, so it’s essential,” lectures the hierarchy to the neophytes. “But we’ll make it hard to get and often not worth the getting.” Touted as a necessity, but priced like a luxury, many degree programs are mediocre or worse — predatory loan scams that hustle aspiring students into deep debt and poverty.

On both a human level and in terms of our national interest, that is seriously twisted. Nonetheless, it’s our nation’s de facto educational policy, promulgated and enforced by a cabal of ideologues and profiteers, including Washington politicos, most state governments, college CEOs, Wall Street financiers and debt-collection corporations. What we have is a shameful ethical collapse. These self-serving interests have intentionally devalued education from an essential public investment in the common good to just another commodity.

Back in the olden days of 1961, I attended the University of North Texas. At this public school, I was blessed with good teachers, a student body of working-class kids (most, like me, were the first in their families to go to college) and an educational culture focused on enabling us to become socially useful citizens. All of this cost me under $800 a year (about $6,250 in today’s dollars) — including living expenses! With close-to-free tuition and a part-time job, I could afford to get a good education, gain experience in everything from work to civic activism, make useful connections, graduate in four years, and obtain a debt-free start in life. We just assumed that’s what college was supposed to be.

It still ought to be, but for most students today, it’s not even close. In the U.S., tuition and fees charged by public four-year colleges and universities average more than $20,000 per year. For a private four-year college, it’s more than double that amount. Even public two-year colleges cost around $11,000 per year.

The nation’s fastest growing provider of higher education is unfortunately also the worst: private, for-profit schools. While a few deliver an honest educational product, honesty is not a business model embraced by most of these sprawling, predatory chains largely owned by Wall Street.

To achieve the Wall Street imperative of goosing up stock prices and maximizing profits, this educational sector routinely applies the full toolkit of corporate thievery, including false advertising, high-pressure sales tactics, bait-and-switch scams, legal dodges, political protection and outright lying. Rather than educating students and broadening life’s possibilities, many for-profit colleges have bankrupted hundreds of thousands of students. Worse, many of these “schools” prey on struggling, low-income workers desperately hoping a degree will provide a toehold in the middle class.

To say there are lots of horror stories about private, for-profit colleges gouging students is like saying there are lots of ouchies in a bramble patch. A profusion of books, articles, reports, investigations, and lawsuits, as well as websites such as My ITT Experience, document the toll.

You might ask, “If they’re so awful, how do they stay in business?” The old-fashioned way: By lavishly spreading money around to the right people. And since most of their revenue comes from taxpayers, it’s actually your money they’re spreading.

“Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife,” said American philosopher and education reformer John Dewey. It’s time we give birth to a new of debt-free democracy. Put a tiny tax on the billions of daily, automated transactions by speculators, and more than enough money will come into the public coffers to free up higher education for all. For information, check out United States Students Association (http://www.usstudents.org).

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

Photo: Kevin Creamer

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