What if the kids don’t want to be in Kansas anymore?

Op-eds Opinions

If I promise you free education, what should I get in return? If I relieve $15 000 of your student loan, what do you owe me? Your proverbial firstborn child?

In several states, this kind of educational brokering is taking place. While firstborns may not be the bartering chips of choice, equally personal aspects of vulnerable students’ lives are at stake. 

There’s a mode of thought springing up around post-secondary schools in America that’s becoming increasingly fashionable and alarming. Born from harsh economic times and a sort of Midwestern pragmatism, this mode of thought does not seek to open new vistas to college and university students. Instead, it seeks to herd them into the location and vocation the government deems most useful.

Jennifer Granholm, a former governor of Michigan (and current TV show host), recently graced the pages of Bloomberg Business Week under the headline “My bright idea.” Granholm’s bright idea was to “aggressively use community colleges for retraining.” Many people go to college for retraining, and Granholm is not the first to light upon this useful function of the community college. Granholm’s particular genius while she was in office was to offer two years’ worth of free tuition to unemployed workers for retraining. Fantastic. The only catch was that workers enrolled in this program had to be trained in an “area of need” identified by the business community. Not an area the worker aspired to or for which they showed aptitude. Just an area that some still-employed, higher-up business worker stamped with a seal of arbitrary approval. 

Meanwhile, Kansas had better brace itself for even more Wizard of Oz-inspired jokes. (“You’re not in Kansas anymore. Oh, wait — yes you are.”) The state is offering up to $15 000 in student loan relief to people who are willing to move — or move back — to parts of the state where the population has dwindled. Those who sign up must stay five years in order to get the full sum they’ve been promised. If you take, say, five years to finish your degree because you work part-time to mitigate your debt, and you dedicate another five years to working in some tumbleweed town in order to pay off the rest of it, you’ll be 30 before your real, unfettered life can begin. 

Both these programs have proponents happy to trumpet their success. Kansas’s debt relief program is so popular that neighbouring Nebraska is considering starting a similar incentive of its own. And Granholm says her program resulted in worker placement at four times the national average.

But have these people ever thought that their programs’ popularity may have more to do with the brutality of a broken education system than the brilliance of their idea? Should schooling be so prohibitively expensive that prospective students will leap at the carrot of free tuition dangled above them, no matter the cost to their autonomy? Should student debt be so widespread (topping even credit card debt in America) that graduates will move anywhere to escape it? 

Shuffling students across borders and corralling them in limited programs more closely resembles a cattle ranch than an educational enterprise.