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The Point: Debt-Free Education, Now!


The Communications Committee is delighted to hand off this week’s Point to our colleague (and former ExCom member) Joseph Ramsey, who has some important insight into why we all need to be working urgently for debt-free education.  But before we get out of the way, we want to urge you to pay heightened attention to the crisis that has been visited upon our colleagues in the Africana Studies Department. From cancelled job searches, an outside—and still largely secret-“audit” by a management-side law firm, the demotion of a respected colleague, and the recent removal of the department’s elected chair, it is clear that the administration of UMB has no intention of letting faculty do its work with any measure of sovereignty or academic freedom. Please stay tuned for more direct messages from the FSU Executive Committee as to how you can join the effort to support our colleagues. And remember: an attack on any of us is an attack on us all!

Greetings, Colleagues:

Last week a group of UMB faculty, staff, and students, including members of the Africana Studies Department, held a campus speak-out to raise awareness about threats facing public higher education—some emanating from on-campus forces, some from off-campus. Standing not far from the Campus Center shuttle bus at midday, we addressed students coming and going from our public commuter campus.  Many passersby nodded along from afar…but when the bus arrived, they were off.  

Many of them, no doubt, were off to work.

The irony of the situation struck me: students rushing off with no time to attend a rally to help reduce tuition costs…because, likely as not, they had to get to work…to pay those tuition costs. The chant of the day, led by an organizer from PHENOM (the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts) was for a “Debt Free Future!”

But, watching those students head out bus after bus, I couldn’t help but think about the need for not just a debt-free FUTURE, but a debt-free PRESENT.  Scholars in the field, including Jeffrey J. Williams, have long documented what Williams refers to as the pedagogy of debt. Student debt, Williams has pointed out, is not merely an oppressive financial burden that affects students after they graduate—reducing their chances to buy a home or a car, delaying retirement age, and so on.  It’s also an ideological shackle that limits students while they are still in the process of getting their education.  

The prospect of future debt presses students to narrow their schooling choices now to majors or careers that they’ve been told (rightly or wrongly) have the best chance of paying back that debt after graduation.  The result is an increasingly instrumentalized view of education, one that makes the once-common idea of college as a place for intellectual exploration, self-discovery, and social activism, a luxury “distraction” that many students feel they cannot afford.  How many of our UMB students have great talent or passion for one area, but end up settling for something else due to financial fears?  

Furthermore, many students who can’t or don’t take loans—or whose loans don’t cover the cost of tuition, fees, and living expenses—find themselves pressured to take on rising wage work hours even while they are still in school, often exceeding 20, 30, or even 40 hours per week on top of five classes.  This wage-laboring part of the student population, often neglected in the broader national discussion about cancelling student debt, is crucial, especially at a public urban commuter university like UMB.  

Make no mistake, the real-world experiences our students bring into the classroom make UMB a rich and thrilling place to work. But all that real life work experience can’t benefit class discussion much if the working students are so exhausted from overnight doubles they can’t keep their eyes open in class.

When students are compelled to labor so many hours per week before even getting to course work, how much time and energy are left for little things like…studying and completing assignments?  Stretched to the max, students become more likely to skim rather than read, even as the surface approach becomes weighted with increasing concerns about “what will be on the test.”  Office hours?  Inspiring after class discussions with the professor?  Connecting with fellow students and campus community organizations?  Not likely.

And, of course, this pressure exacerbates existing race, class, and other social inequalities.  Many potential students, due to rising tuition levels, are forced to forego college altogether.  How many students who would like to attend UMB never end up doing so, due to the sticker shock of $15,000 per year (and that’s in-state)?  

Keeping such students away from our campus represents not just a loss for them and their families and communities; it represents a loss for our public UMB campus as well, as the rich worldly experiences of these (mostly working-class and often BIPOC) students are prevented from nourishing our classrooms and communities.

We might boil down the educational effects of rising student tuition and debt briefly into three aspects:  It affects WHAT students study, HOW they study, and WHO gets to study at all                                                               

We’ve focused here on how debt and tuition haunt not only our students’ future, but the educational present, as well.  

Let’s close with a brief journey into the past.

When UMB was founded in 1965, full-time tuition was only $100 per semester (or around $900 in inflation-adjusted 2022 dollars).   This was made possible by robust federal and state funding, and more progressive taxation, which regularly covered 80% or more of the costs of a UMB education, unlike the paltry 20% we currently suffer with.  Many current Massachusetts leaders, including UMass system President Marty Meehan himself, directly benefited from that prior regime, having the chance to attend and graduate from a quality public university when it was possible to pay tuition with just a part-time summer job. 

Good enough for Marty Meehan?  Good enough for our students, too.

What would life be like at UMB—for our students, for our faculty, for our community-driven mission—if tuition were returned to near-zero once again and student debt made a thing of the past?  It's not just an ‘academic’ question. This November in Massachusetts, by turning out for votes for the upcoming Fair Share Amendment (see last week’s Point for details), and more broadly by pushing for legislation like the Debt Free Future Act in Massachusetts and College for All Act in the U.S. Congress, we have a chance to start reversing tuition hikes and student debt levels now—reclaiming the public in public higher ed.

The result of such legislation can be a future freed of burdensome debts.  But also a present liberated for inquiry, exploration, and genuine educational flourishing.  

A final note: 

I encourage my fellow FSU members to find a way to carve out some time in class to talk about this topic with our students: How is the rising cost of college affecting their lives right now?  How does the future specter of debt affect them today?  How do their work hours affect their studies?  And, crucially: What might they do with their lives if they were liberated from the pressures of excessive wage labor, tuition, and student-debt? 

Together with our students, let’s fight to make that world a reality.

To learn more about the debt free program including eligibility, go to  

This is your union: please tell us at how debt affects you and your students and how you think we can best mobilize to fight for a more just educational landscape.


Joseph Ramsey, on behalf of the Communications Committee

Joseph G. Ramsey, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in the English and American Studies, and designated Honors College faculty.  His more extended thoughts on strategies and pedagogies for transforming higher education can be found here in New Politics, “25 Truths to Build Campus Power Despite Precarity”:, excerpted in Counterpunch here: .  Joe also recently co-hosted (with UMB graduate Lena Durkin) organizers from the Debt Collective on his podcast, Shelter & Solidarity