What It Do: Pulling Up The Ladder

Angel Tollinche misses the routine of being a student. The daily ride on the 6 from Soundview in the Bronx all the way down to crowded Union Square. The constant networking. The challenge of learning advanced techniques in audio engineering, his chosen craft.

After losing his mother to illness a few years ago, Tollinche felt his life was spiraling towards either prison or a gangbanger’s grave, so he enrolled at the Institute Of Audio Research in Manhattan, hoping to turn his passion for music into a professional career. The financial aid team was accommodating, neatly guiding him through the student loan process. And when the loans fell short of the total needed, they generously offered the option to pay the rest in monthly installments.

Eventually, Tollinche was unable to keep up on the payments he owed the school and was threatened with expulsion from the program. To avoid this, he started looking for work, occasionally missing classes that conflicted with job interviews.

He was recently dropped from IAR due to attendance issues. As for the loans he took out, he is waiting for the day when the collection calls start.

Flash back to 1943. Just a few miles from the Monroe Housing Project where Angel lives, Virginia Palmieri was born to Italian immigrant parents. Quickly whisked away from the rapidly changing city to the fertile and static lands south of the Chesapeake, the future congresswoman was raised under the staunch—some would say reactionary—conservative religious culture that dominates the Appalachian foothills.

Young Virginia was a striver, putting herself through the University Of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, partially with money earned as a school janitor. She got married, became Virginia Foxx, and advanced along her career in academia, from lowly research assistant all the way to community college president, taking the helm of Mayland Community College, a utilitarian stepping stone for working class students.

In 1994, civic duty called, and she was elected to the state senate, where she proved a reliable samurai for the conservative cause. After 10 years of paying dues in the political minor leagues, Ginny Foxx would finally get her shot at the big time.

The Congressional GOP primary in North Carolina’s 5th District was notably brutal in 2004, a fitting tribute to the retirement of that master of southern nastiness, Jesse Helms. The balance of power among Western Carolina Republicans was split. The hardcore economic conservatives, represented by local City Councilman Vernon Robinson, were skirmishing with the more apocalyptic minded evangelicals for whom Foxx carried a blazing torch in the godless night.

By the time the ashes settled, Virginia Foxx, formerly of the Bronx, was the Republican nominee. Her forgotten general election opponent laid down like an obedient sacrifice, and by the time of her re-election campaign, she was so entrenched the Democrats could find no credible candidate willing to tangle with her.

These days, Representative Foxx chairs the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, where she zealously guards the freedom of schools like IAR to conduct business as usual. One of her most recent legislative accomplishments was sponsoring a bill designed to undo Obama Administration rule changes regarding for-profit schools.

Foxx often speaks of the purported “efficiency and effectiveness” of these institutions. Given that the graduation rate of for-profits is around 22 percent—less than half that of non-profits—it is not clear at what exactly they are supposed to be effective. Unless, of course, she is referring to the vast earnings that decorate the balance sheets of the companies behind these schools.

While the for-profit education business rakes in the coin, exploding student debt has become an undeniable leech on overall economic activity. People send millions of dollars every month to the insatiable abyss of the financial sector, instead of spending that money on groceries, car payments, or health care. And if someone doesn’t pay, they enter a realm of bad credit and wage garnishment, a status enjoyed by at least 10 percent of graduates.

Representative Foxx claims no sympathy for people buried in loans. After all, nobody was forced to sign anything, and she herself “never borrowed a dime” while paying her way through college. Of course, the approximately $1,200 per year (inflation adjusted) she paid at a major university would not even be enough to attend Mayland Community nowadays. UNC-Chapel Hill costs over $7,000 for tuition and fees alone. At janitorial wages, it would take six months working full-time just to get on the class roster, much less pay for books, meals, and boarding.

Scholarships and grants are available, it’s true. But ballooning costs and plummeting funding have made those dollars more scarce. So students borrow, enabled by schools desperate for tuition money, and encouraged by parents convinced that a college degree is still the path to middle class (or better!) respectability. And they graduate—or not—saddled with more debt than someone in Virginia Foxx’s youth would have spent on a first house.

For his part, Angel Tollinche refuses to give up on his dream of a better life, and continues to work towards a career in music production. With the contacts he made at the school and the advanced techniques he learned, he feels ready to move forward, even without the degree.

“I went there for the information, not the piece of paper,” says Tollinche.