Photo: Kevin Winter (Getty Images)

On February 10, 2004, Kanye West, aka Yeezy, released his debut album, The College Dropout. The album remains a classic that won multiple Grammys and the certification of triple platinum. Its message also explains why it remains important today. The album was the most popular indictment of the higher education system.

West formed a lyrical manifesto that challenged the idea that colleges and universities were pathways to mobility. In contrast to national discussions on college opportunity, Kanye centered the experiences of black college dropouts rather than erasing them. He removed the shame of being un-credentialed or degree-less and used his platform to show that poor black people, from dropouts to never enrolled, had something to say. His critique of higher education was clear: It did not have an answer for racialized poverty and, therefore, was not a real opportunity and, even worse, was a system that exploited poor black folks.

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Many of The College Dropout’s songs share the same realm as N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” to form what I refer to as a ‘Fuck Higher Education’ critique. These types of hip-hop songs dare to take on institutional systems—be it colleges or policing—that are wrongly idealized. They highlight poor black people’s lived realities to show how U.S. systems operate in racist and violent ways. “Fuck Tha Police” was not anti-safety and -security in black communities; it was against the police state that abused and killed black people. In the same vein, a Fuck Higher Education critique is not anti-higher learning or -mobility; it is against college being positioned as the hurdle black people must clear to escape poverty.

The proclamation Fuck Higher Education is directed at an institutional system where it is normal to enroll black students (59 percent of recent black high school graduates enroll), profit off their student loans (90 percent of black students borrow loans), and fail to graduate them (see report). One study found that black people who do earn a college credential often experience an increase in their student loan balance by over 100 percent 12 years after graduating. Like the police—higher education is predatory in black communities.

Yeezy argues through his lyrics and satirical skits that college enrollment and even graduation too often fails to put money into poor black folks’ pockets or secure them equality in society. On his song “Graduation Day,” he declares “I’m about to break the rules, but don’t tell anybody. I got something better than school, but don’t tell anybody.” His songs on the album declared that society must have “better” solutions to poverty than schooling; moreover, it was worth breaking the rules to find them.

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West provided us with three main critiques of higher education that are still relevant today: the illusion of college choice and opportunity, the high costs of a degree, and college enrollment as consumerism.

You know the kids gon’ act a fool

When you stop the programs for after school...

We scream: “rocks, blow, weed, park,” see, now we smart

We ain’t retards, the way teachers thought

Hold up, hold fast, we make more cash

Now tell my momma I belong in that slow class

—“We Don’t Care”

Yeezy’s lyrics document how education is not a ready-made opportunity for anyone who chooses to enroll. By design, K-12 and higher education are stratified for poor black people. He calls out how low-income black students are too often in schools that do not prepare or direct them to college. They endure schooling environments that do not see them as “smart” or academically capable, and they face the consequences of policies that enforce the same logics. For West, poor black students are smart. They analyze their situation of poverty, determine school cannot provide an immediate answer and conclude “hold up, hold fast, we make more cash” on alternate pathways.

Sittin’ in the hood like community colleges

This dope money here is Lil’ Trey’s scholarship

Cause ain’t no tuition for having no ambition

And ain’t no loans for sittin’ your ass at home

So we forced to sell crack, rap, and get a job

You gotta do somethin’ man, your ass is grown

—“We Don’t Care”

West contrasts college pathways with pathways to quick money. His play on words sets up poor black people’s pathways to higher education with three alternatives: selling drugs, rapping, and finding a (low-wage) job. While the popular idea of a college student is a person at a four-year institution, West makes it clear that the college opportunity “sittin’ in the hood” is community college. Disproportionally, community colleges serve as the primary point of access for low-income black students (51 percent of black students in public higher education are in community or technical colleges (pdf)). These open access institutions often have low graduation rates, are underfunded, and overextended.

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Simply put, access to an institutional system that does not solve being broke, which always needs an immediate solution, is not a choice or opportunity for poor black people. It is an illusion of choice and opportunity. The “Lil’ Treys” in poor communities are able to avoid tuition and student loans and choose options that provide immediate relief, however temporal, to poverty. West empathizes with those who end up on an alternative path—they “gotta do somethin.” On the album, Yeezy views black people’s humanity as valuable so he was able to celebrate their life making, legal or otherwise, in an anti-black society.

She has no idea what she doin’ in college

That major that she majored in don’t make no money

But she won’t drop out, her parents’ll look at her funny

Now, tell me that ain’t insecurr

The concept of school seems so securr

Sophomore, three yurrs, ain’t picked a carurr

She like, “Fuck it, I’ll just stay down hurr and do hair.”

—“All Falls Down”

For those who enroll in higher education, West argues black college students’ experiences are not much better. West raps, “the concept of school seems so securr” to show how the “college as always a benefit” or “just go to college” master narrative forces many black people to feel trapped on a costly pathway to mobility. Here, he is discussing four-year institutions that often fail to graduate black students (only 22 percent of black people who enroll in four-year institutions graduate in four years). Black people enroll in college, often multiple times, because we believe dropping out will have people “look at [us] funny.” Another way to blame us for being born on the margins.

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Yeezy also brings attention to the student group that enrolls in higher education at a high rate but continues to experience low graduation rates—black women. They have access, but unstructured degree pathways often mean having “no idea what she doin’ in college” and the reality “that major that she majored in don’t make no money.” Too often black women are deemed alright because they enroll at higher rates than their male counterparts, but this argument ignores that high enrollment also means they are exploited the most. They have higher student loan debt compounded with struggles to find degree-level employment (pdf). In the song, the black woman declares “fuck it” and, similar to Lil’ Trey, turns to the informal economy to survive.

You show them those degrees, man

When everyone says “Hey, you’re not working, you’re not making any money”

You say “You look at my degrees”

—“School Spirit (Skit 2)”

The satirical skits throughout the CD feature a black male narrator who has degrees that have not led to social mobility, but the narrator flaunts those degrees in the same way a rap artist may flaunt shoes or jewelry. West repeatedly criticizes mindless materialism and consumerism. He argues “we buy to cover up what’s inside.” He includes the college student in this type of “self-conscious” consumption. According to Kanye, black people consume to make it “seem we livin’ the American Dream.” Yeezy explains that “they [white America] made us hate ourself and love they wealth” and consumption allows one to perform wealth. I argue the dominant messaging of “just go to college” to black students is similar to the messaging to buy Jordans. Both are expensive products with an unlikely return and both “seem” to provide black people with value in a society that treats us as if we have none.

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The difference between Jordans and higher education is that black people do not become poorer because they buy shoes. They are, however, pushed deeper into generational poverty when they go into debt, along with their parents, to pay for college and do not see the promised return. Black undergraduate students are borrowing $30,000, on average, despite coming from families with almost no wealth.

The most detrimental financial decision a young black person makes is not around clothes, shoes, or phones. It is enrolling in the stratified higher education system and beginning adulthood with a lifetime debt sentence.

Higher education’s operation as an engine of racial debt rather than an engine for mobility was why Kanye’s first album was groundbreaking. He was able to give a new generation their N.W.A. moment. He declared Fuck Higher Education and celebrated black people who had no credentials as valuable. From those who never enroll to those who drop out, Fuck Higher Education is a sentiment. It is a feeling that analyzes the institutional system for first presenting itself as a way out then pushing one deeper into poverty, just now with student debt.

And for that paper, look how low we’ll stoop

Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe

—“All Falls Down”

Kanye warned those of us considered credentialed, expectational, and successful (in sum: black excellence) to be wary of “how low we’ll stoop.” We now know he was also warning us about himself. Like the Kanye of today, we all reproduce the white logic of black people’s oppression being a choice when we position a college credential as the prerequisite for black people to have value, experience racial justice, or have their human needs met. If degrees and high achievement are the litmus tests for our human value, as Kanye said, “you still a nigga in a coupe.” Our value as black people must just be—without any qualifiers.