‘Lean Semesters’

Author discusses her new book about how higher education “reproduces inequity” for Black women.

October 16, 2020

Black women have achieved enormous success in higher education. But at what cost to them? And to the institutions that employ them? Those are the questions examined by Sekile M. Nzinga, in Lean Semesters: How Higher Education Reproduces Inequity (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Nzinga is the director of the Women's Center and a lecturer in gender and sexuality studies at Northwestern University. She responded via email to questions about her book.

Q: "Mortgaging Our Brains" is a great chapter name. How do Black women Ph.D.s end up with what you call "subprime" Ph.D.s?

A: Despite the unprecedented rising costs for graduate study in the United States, there has been a notable uptick of underrepresented women of color enrolling in doctoral programs. Black women’s enrollment in doctoral programs has almost doubled in the past 20 years. Black women are also less likely to be funded for their doctoral education across fields of study and also have been reported to carry the greatest educational debt of any subgroup of doctoral students. This steady increase in their enrollment is occurring despite the decline in academic institutions’ ability to adequately fund graduate students or hire newly minted Ph.D.s as tenure-track professors given the current widespread depletion in tenure-stream faculty in U.S. universities and colleges.

For many Black women students, the joy of being accepted into a doctoral program is soon replaced with the angst of securing funding, and many turn to student loans. But in 2012, to save about $1.8 billion a year, Congress halted the subsidization of interest that accumulates on federal student loans taken out by graduate students while they are enrolled in school and for the first six transitional “grace period” months after they complete their degrees or are no longer enrolled. Since 2012, U.S. graduate students have been accumulating interest on their government-sponsored loans beginning on the first day of class. If they take longer to complete their degrees, as Black and caregiving graduate students are likely to do, then they will accrue even greater educational debt if they are not fully funded recipients of fellowships and assistantships.

These debt-for-degree practices affect all U.S. college students who must pay for their own education, but as in the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-10, trends of uneven impact for people of color and women have become apparent. And in parallel fashion to the housing debt crisis in the United States, the $1.6 trillion student loan debt crisis that affects all American families is disproportionately impacting students and families of color. In fact, Black college students have the highest private student loan participation rate in the country, and approximately 81 percent of Black students currently borrow money to fund their educations, compared to 65 percent of white students.

Even when they manage to secure student loans, they are often saddled with higher interest rates than white students. Private student lenders have operated in a murky legal gray zone -- private lenders have found ways to penalize borrowers of color for attending schools that have higher educational loan defaults by using a sophisticated “cohort default rate.” However, students of color, now more aptly named borrowers of color, most often require greater financial assistance while in college, and many often leave colleges, whether they graduate or not, with higher levels of educational and consumer debt and with lower levels of income and wealth. Not surprisingly, the mounting levels of high interest rates on student loans leave borrowers of color and working-class students struggling to make payments on time, often resulting in unforeseen ballooning fees for deferment or forbearance. In turn, students of color have higher attrition, more loan defaults and more debt at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The long-term material impact on students and their families include garnisheed checks, reduced wages, loss of federal income tax rebates, negative credit ratings and no federal debt protection through bankruptcy.

Q: The problems with contingent labor are well known. Can you describe how Black women end up with a disproportionate share of those jobs?

A: It is important to note that the vast majority of tenure-track Black professors are employed at historically Black colleges and universities. Those that teach at predominantly white institutions are overrepresented as contingent faculty and less likely to have tenure. These academic workforce realities point to both the current casualized employment landscape that all academics are navigating and the historic institutional racism that is all too familiar to Black academics. Black women academics face positions of sustained precarity that are demarcated by their disproportionate overrepresentation as underpaid lecturers, adjuncts, skills course instructors and assistant professors. Despite higher education institutions’ professed commitment to diversifying faculty, the disparity in the numbers between assistant and full professors has been attributed to the disproportionate number of Black female professors who have been denied tenure by their institutions or not offered tenure-track appointments at all. In addition to the dearth of noncontingent appointments occupied by Black women, they are also more likely to lag in pay, resources, benefits and the protections of collective bargaining units.

In Lean Semesters, I illuminate the multiplicity of Black women’s experiences as both contractually and structurally contingent and believe is important to distinguish between these two interconnected forms of contingency that compound Black academic women’s disproportionate positionality as academic laborers. I argue that faculty of color, particularly women of color, are contractually contingent under the university’s latest restructured formation -- a reality shared with other precariously employed academics, who are similarly subject to job insecurity, lower wages, poor work conditions, few or no benefits, and little or no access to work-life supports -- but within which Black women are disproportionately represented. In addition, I and many others argue that women of color academics are also structurally contingent (and have been since their entry into academe), because regardless of their contracted appointment status, they remain particularly disposable given enduring inequities that are maintained and reproduced through institutionalized forms of racism and sexism within the university’s academic workforce that inhibit their success and advancement within their respective fields.

Q: What should higher ed do about its reliance on contingent labor? It claims to be unable to act.

A: I tend to avoid prescriptive responses but do believe that reliance on contingent labor is unsustainable and leads to exploitation of workers. Given the fraught and widespread bias imbedded with tenure review processes, I am also not sure that rightsizing tenure hires is even our primary strategy in this moment. What is clear for me is the critical role of the federal and state government will need to play in appropriating funding back to higher education institutions so that education and advancing society via the production and dissemination of knowledge can become their central social purpose. The reliance of contingent labor, private funding and partnerships with multinational corporations, prisons and the military compromises the ethics of learning and working in higher education. I invite institutions of higher education to start by grappling the contradictions between their lofty democratizing mission statements and their current neoliberal practices that are reproducing social inequities.

Q: What is the impact of higher ed on Black women and their families?

A: One of the main arguments I make in this book is that Black academic women, a historically underrepresented group within the academy, are extremely vulnerable to hyperexploitation within the neoliberal university. Subsequently, highly educated Black women, who are also mothers and caregivers attempting to “do what they love,” often find themselves with more education, which has historically been touted as a buffer against poverty, but with less income, greater debt, no health care, less childcare, and food insecurity.

Q: Many would look at higher ed and say that Black women are achieving amazing success. How is it that you look at higher ed and see something more?

A: Lean Semesters questions the notion of progress without diminishing the documented achievements that Black women academics have contributed to the world. I found it important to nuance how corporatized academic institutions have been largely successful in marketing themselves as sites of equal opportunity and as benevolent social institutions, yet such targeted messaging says little about said institutions’ actual capacity or willingness to support the diverse students, educators and scholars that they attract.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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