'Dirty Money?'

Anthropologists discuss student debt and other concerns about the "commodification" of higher education, and debate role of faculty members in reform efforts.

December 4, 2014

WASHINGTON -- “This is depressing.”

That’s how Jane McEldowney Jensen, associate professor of education and Ph.D. cohort director at the University of Kentucky, summed up the tone of the papers presented Wednesday during a session called “Higher Education’s Walk of Shame: Dirty Money, Dirty Morals and Loss of Intimacy” at the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference.

Indeed, the picture painted was grim. Papers had such preliminary titles as “Selling an Unknown Future: Risk, Debt and Failure” and "The University as a ‘House of Cards,’ ” and speakers used words such as “unsustainable” and “precarity.” They criticized administrators and policy-makers as out-of-touch conspirators in the problem of mounting student debt load, which now tops $1 trillion, and expressed conflicted opinions about the value of higher education as it is perceived by many today.

Alex Posecznick, a full-time, non-tenure-track professor of education, culture and society at the University of Pennsylvania, said higher education is viewed less as a public good than a commodity operating on two at-times contradictory levels. On one hand, college is an individual investment through which students “polish and blend” knowledge and personhood “into a single, marketable product.” And the intimacy they experience is no longer with a community of learners, but with a “brand” – that of their institution, he said. It’s a speculative investment of sorts, but students who ultimately decide to attend college become “tokens” of the brand, in the hope that the “financial benefit” of being associated with the institution will eventually outweigh the initial cost.

On the other hand, Posecznick said, college and universities also are perceived – though increasingly anachronistically – as “infrastructure” through which ideas travel. In this collective vision, the university is a powerful “symbol” of the modern state and the ideal of meritocracy.

Ultimately, though, he said, they’re both “fantasies,” and it’s important to ask, “What happens when we don’t measure up?”

Jonathan Church, associate professor and director of cultural anthropology at Arcadia University, in Pennsylvania, said faculty members can feel like “all the oxygen is leaving the room” when administrators talk about expansion and recruitment efforts but ignore the giant problem of student debt.

While there are those who see taking on debt as a “rational student investment,” Church said, there are others – himself included – who see debt “as a form of suffering, and there are students who are suffering.” He said that students who come to class bleary-eyed and yawning because they’re trying to hold down near-full-time jobs to minimize their debt are among those who have “mortgaged their futures.”

Church also expressed some discomfort with the call for faculty members to “sell” their institutions on open house days. He said he tells prospective students that they’ll probably learn a second language, gain critical thinking skills and develop close bonds with faculty members before they graduate from his department. He also shares “case studies” of successful alumni.

At the same time, he said, he’s careful to repeat the “litany” of uncertainty regarding return on investment, including record levels of student debt and a still-struggling job market. These days, he said, any risk is borne not by higher education broadly but by each individual.

Church’s comments sparked some discussion among audience members and panelists about the role of faculty members in advocating for change regarding student debt. One attendee asked why there was a “lack of sustained movement among faculty” in student debt activism. He said the issue potentially raised issues of scholarship versus advocacy, but also said that many professors simply seem uninterested.

Another attendee, who is working as an adjunct but would like full-time employment, said student debt and faculty workforce issues are linked – a point faculty advocate groups, such as the New Faculty Majority, and unions, such as Service Employees International Union have made in their organizing efforts. She said she’s saddled with debt but doesn’t make a full-time salary to help pay it off, and would like to participate in student debt activism. At the same time, she said it’s hard to speak out, for fear of damaging her career or losing her contract position.

Panelists said they related to both points. Especially for tenured faculty, Church again advocated talking honestly with students about debt, “desperately” steering them away from private loans, encouraging them to seek out scholarships, and policing oneself for “neoliberal moments,” or lines of thought that buy into the idea that privatization of education is the new normal.

“I think we do provide something really good for them, but we want to be really careful that they understand what they’ve getting into,” he said.

Jensen, who was charged with responding to the variety of mostly theory-driven papers  – said students today are becoming members of a “debt society” in ways past generations didn't. It’s important for anthropologists to continue to engage in more data-driven discussion about what that means, and to be precise about the different kinds of institutions they’re talking about. Regional universities with a more practical focus deliver a different experience from their more “distinctive” flagship counterparts, for example, she said.

Jensen also challenged Posecznick’s “branding” framework, asking what to make of the student who attends a local institution with little name recognition, but who lacks the “capital” to advance his or her brand through self-promotion.

Another panelist, Cris Shore, professor of anthropology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, said the student debt crisis in his country could serve as a “case study” for what could happen in the U.S., when – not if – the student debt “bubble” bursts. He said New Zealand students now cannot pay back 40 percent of the loans they take out, and that so many students have left the country upon graduation in order to find the higher-paying work with which they can pay off their loans that the government is trying to find ways to incentivize them to stay. At the same time, he said, the government passed a law last year authorizing the arrest of student loans defaulters owing over a certain amount; the arrests are to be made on the border, targeting debt-holders living overseas.

Despite that sense of crisis, Shore said a small-scale enthographic study he’s completing with a graduate student shows that students tend to think of student debt in the “abstract,” or, as one student said, “a problem for the future me.” Depsite recent on-campus protests against student debt, many students tend to consider rising debt a “fact of life,” he added – one they believe will delay life events such as having children and planning for retirement.



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