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Biopolitical Economies in Higher Education Debt Formation

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Elijah Adiv Edelman
Jessica L Murgel


Financial Exploitation of Knowledge Production

As institutions of higher learning experience increasing financial responsibilities and shrinking endowments they are simultaneously becoming the sites of more learning than ever before. Facing layoffs and uncertain career paths, many have gone back to school in search of degrees with the hope of securing a more financially stable future. Yet, as the market becomes inundated with masses of recent graduates, fewer stable and financially sustainable academic positions are becoming available. Schools want to spend less, yet continue to expand their student bodies. As such, cycles of knowledge production and consumption can be reduced to devalued, yet highly commodifiable, units ripe for exploitative practices. The increased use of professorial adjunct and visiting lecturer labor fulfills enormous percentages of university teaching needs, yet constitutes only a fraction of payroll budgets allocated for instruction. As a result, many of these full-time instructors earn so little instructing students they must go into forbearance on their own student debts.

In this co-authored piece, we—as a full-time professorial adjunct at both a small liberal arts college and at a major research university and as a full-time undergraduate student—consider our own roles in maintaining the hegemonies of debt formation within institutions of higher education. We each contribute to the institution of higher education in different ways, yet are equally bound to the accumulation of debt. In short, we, as educators, theorists, and researchers, are faced with the challenge of how to engage in continued academic inquiry when our own participation within the institution of higher education directly subsidizes the continued financial exploitation of our colleagues, our students, and the accredited knowledge exchange.

Biopolitical Worth: Teaching, Learning, Earning and in Debt

Claire Goldstene—a temporary instructor of history teaching at American University—notes in her 2012 Thought and Action article, “The Politics of Contingent Academic Labor,” that enrollments in higher education are higher than ever before in US history, with a nearly 40% increase in enrollments over the past 15 years. Now valued at over 1 trillion dollars, student loan debt in 2013 exceeds overall credit card debt, according to the non-profit student loan advocacy group, FinAID. With this level of growth, one might expect that the market for additional and permanent instructors would likewise expand. However, institutions of higher learning have chosen to let the iron fist of the market guide the logics of the ivory tower rather than increasing the size of departments or creating new tenure-line appointments. Goldstene further notes that non-tenure track instructors—primarily adjuncts—now account for 68% of all faculty appointments in US higher education. Unlike a tenured or tenure-track position, adjunct labor carries with it little to no job security, medical or research benefits yet often includes the same kinds of responsibilities of non-wage-labor instruction. Adjuncts also face the same demands in the publish-or-perish academic employment system, where to ‘perish’ constitutes the inability to secure employment beyond temporary and per-term based teaching. Post-graduation, academics are granted a maximum of three years to secure forbearance on student loans due to financial distress, after which adjunct work, as a primary source of income, may not be financially sustainable.

Significantly, student loan debt occupies an economic power position unlike any other private loan. There is no statute of limitations on the repayment of student loan debt, as noted in the National Consumer Law Center’s (NCLC) 2006 report on student debt, “No Way Out: Student Loans, Financial Distress, and the Need for Policy.” Deanne Loonin, director of NCLC’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, also notes in this report that unlike credit card debt, auto loan debt or even the mortgage on one’s home, student loan debt must be repaid. Furthermore, one generally cannot be discharged of their student loan through bankruptcy. And as a Loonin stresses, because the government can garnish a borrower’s wages, seize their tax refunds, and even federal benefits, such as Social Security and Disability, defaulting on a student loan carries a burden that is otherwise only deployed with back-owed criminal fees and child support. The deceptively reassuring tone of financial aid thus fails to capture the life-long fiscal commitment to loans utilized for higher education. Student loans effectively create a permanent and virtually endless source of income for private lenders, who are the sole benefactors of leasing out futures through college degrees.

Student to Adjunct Cost-Benefit Analysis: Cost and Value of Classroom Hours

Tuition—or the cost of course work—is one of the primary applications for student loans. According to American University’s website identifying student fees for the 2013-2014 academic year, an undergraduate student at American University—the institution where each author is either employed as an adjunct or enrolled as an undergraduate student—can expect to pay $4,011 per 15-week course, roughly $267 per week or $90 per hour spent in the classroom. For the same courses, adjuncts earn $3,350 per semester—the standard amount earned by those teaching in the anthropology department with a terminal degree—which works out to roughly $75 per hour in the classroom, not taking into account time spent in outside preparation work, office hours or in consultations with students. In a course of 50 students, only two dollars of that $90 of student tuition—slightly over only 2%—functionally subsidizes the instructor’s wages. As the number of students increases in a class, the greater the disparity grows between money the student spends and money the instructor earns. Thus, if the cost of tuition is to correlate with the benefits of education, through which course work is the primary conduit, the value of class time is oddly both exquisitely high yet utterly worthless. Ultimately, the greater value would be for the student to hire the adjunct as a personal tutor rather than share the attention with 40 or 50 other students.

In many ways, the almost entirely devalued labor of instruction exemplifies neoliberal trends in higher educational development, where the bottom line guides academic and fiscal practices. The purpose of enrollment management and other similar loci of investment reduces students to their value as paying customers, further reifying the shift of earning a degree from learning to consumption. The current trend in higher education in the US, wherein grades are generally allocated according to relative cost of the class and the future security of the adjunct, provides the conditions in which knowledge is not so much consumed as much as it is rendered the byproduct of securing a degree. Not surprisingly, students have become so overwhelmed by the financial burden of student debt that grades come to represent abstract hurdles to securing a degree quickly, doled out no less by those of whom the institution has evaluated as deserving less than 2% of their tuition per class. Students attempting to balance working full-time jobs or unpaid internships in addition to juggling an uncertain present in the endeavor to secure a more sustainable future, may have little time or energy to focus much beyond grade output. To learn for the sake of learning, and to teach for the sake of teaching, is a privilege very, very few can enjoy.

Biopolitics of Student Debt: Leasing the Future

In this text we situate biopower as the process through which “individuals become subjects capable of self-knowledge and subjects knowable to others” as Sara Hayden suggests in her 2001 Women Studies in Communication article, “Teenage Bodies, Teenage Selves: Tracing the Implications of Bio-Power in Contemporary Sexuality Education Texts. Thus, accessing higher education is a process that is creating dark subject-categories of experience, through which the student can situate their future as composed of leased time, potentially forever indebted to the private lender. In accord with Foucauldian logics of power, these lenders function to enable the creation of subjectivities but also the limitations of that experience. Student loans provide a dual function in enabling the ability to ‘learn’ while simultaneously constraining one’s future economic and socio-political mobility. The increased feeding demand of a neoliberally-infused higher educational system works to produce a generation of tired adjuncts, festering under heavy teaching loads, job insecurity, and bitterly low wages, yet somehow ready, willing and able to submit to extreme devaluation by the very institutions that got them into this mess. In many ways, current economies of higher education can only exist through the continued and increased exploitation of the physical, mental and affective labor of the instructor and the student. Yoked to desire for new future possibilities contingent on education level, the production of student loan debt constitutes one of the greatest manipulations of hope, where ideologies of the American dream stand as the carrot dangling ahead, visible yet never truly attainable.

Elijah Adiv Edelman holds a PhD in Anthropology from American University in Washington, DC. As a full-time professorial adjunct he makes less than the minimum living wage for residents of Washington, DC. American University pays him $3,350.00 per semester long course.

Jessica L Murgel is an undergraduate student at American University, currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy with a Second Major in History. She is both a full-time student, and employee of two part-time positions at American University, where the cost of tuition is $37,554.00 per academic year.

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