Dylan M. Harris (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs)
Critical geographers should be studying the student debt crisis. In the United States, it impacts all of us as educators, researchers, and mentors. Many of our jobs are tied to student debt, which has cascading impacts on which students are in our classrooms and the kinds of futures we aim to encourage through our teaching. Importantly, student debt is not random. It is both a spatial and place-based phenomenon. It is not a matter of personal failing on behalf of students or their families. It is a structural condition, a manifestation of decades of disinvestment, dispossession, and dismantling of higher education in the US. Critical geographers have long studied the impacts of neoliberalism and uneven development across society, and have created theories, methods, and tools to study and address the inequalities inherent to these systems. Here, I want to advocate for extending these ideas to study the conditions of the student debt crisis, ideally with eyes towards ameliorating it.
I owe $90,900.72. I did everything right. I had scholarships cover much of my bachelor’s degree, graduating with only $5,500 in debt. I worked for a year between my undergraduate and master’s degree. After much careful deliberation and trepidation, I chose to take out a loan to cover my master’s degree programme, which I chose because it could be completed in a year and therefore was more economically feasible. I was accepted into a fully-funded PhD programme after another year of working between degrees, and, after discussing my options with my federal student loan servicer, I was encouraged to defer my payments while in graduate school. Five years later, my debt exploded by more than $30,000 due to interest accrual.
Now, while I am benefiting from the federal student loan freeze, I am, alongside every other student debtor, in limbo. The freeze is set to expire in August 2022, after more than half a dozen extensions. Maybe it will get extended again, and maybe it won’t. While there are growing calls—and so-far failed political promises—to forgive all student debt, there is hardly any sign that forgiveness will happen. Further, even if all student debt is forgiven, the conditions that led to the debt crisis are still present. College is still expensive, and, despite widespread access to student loans, getting a degree is still largely unattainable for many, resulting in students having debts with no degree. Even with a degree, students are graduating into an unstable economy with record-high levels of inflation and wage stagnation. While studying the student debt crisis does not solve it, I believe a critical geographical perspective can help explain where, how, and why student debt exists and persists, complementing ongoing activism for student debt cancellation.
Contextualising the Student Debt Crisis
President Joe Biden’s campaign promised to cancel student debt. In office, despite having the power to forgive all student debt with a signature, he recanted his promises, saying recently he may only forgive $10,000 per borrower. For many, cancelling $10,000 will barely cover interest accrual. Further, forgiving smaller amounts extends the debt crisis into the future and forfeits many of the benefits of debt cancellation, such as increasing the wealth of Black Americans by 40% (Hale 2021). Given the millions of students struggling with debt payments, the proven social and economic benefits of debt cancellation, and the relative ease with which debt can be forgiven, it is reasonable to ask why debt hasn’t already been cancelled. Aside from Biden being an architect of the student debt crisis (Pilkington 2019), the answer to why is, of course, complex. Here, I want to briefly reflect on two potential theories underpinning the student debt crisis: [i] debt as a moral imperative; and [ii] debt as a mechanism of dispossession.
Opponents of debt forgiveness often bring up questions of fairness (e.g. “I had to pay my debts; why should someone else get a free ride?”). This line of reasoning—aside from being logically flawed (is it unfair to other cancer patients if someone goes into remission?)—hinges on morality. David Graeber (2011) explains how debt’s 5000-year-old legacy is interspersed with moments of rupture between lenders and debtors, moments in which morality and social norms were unsettled. Some of the world’s earliest revolutions took place because debtors fought their lenders, resulting debt forgiveness (often to preserve social order). And yet, debt’s morality persists largely because, as Graeber (2011: 5) writes, “If history shows anything, it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt—above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong”. In the US, a college degree is, for many, a prerequisite to getting a decent job, which is the perceived basis of a good life. Struggling to make payments after graduating is often seen as an individual failure (e.g. you should have chosen another major, or you should have made smarter economic decisions, etc.) rather than a structural failure, which is, to be clear, exactly what it is. Students are demoralised because they feel like they have done something wrong, when they have no control over the decades of decisions that led to defunded and increasingly privatised (and expensive) higher education.
Students, in short, are paying for their own dispossession by taking out debts to offset the costs of a profit-driven education model. Taking cues from Arturo Escobar’s (1995) writing on poverty, debt, and dispossession in the so-called “Third World”, it is possible to see how lenders create the conditions through which their existence is justified. Escobar discusses how poverty, as we have come to understand it, did not exist in developing countries until they were told they were poor. Then, the global development apparatus—with structural adjustment loans and promises of “progress”—swooped in to address the poor conditions it created. Lenders created poverty, poverty can be solved by taking out debts, and debt ensures poverty. While it is important not to conflate Escobar’s writing on poverty and international development with the student debt crisis, it is possible to see how similar processes underpin each when read in parallel. Higher education has been structurally dismantled for decades, especially as neoliberal economic ideology took hold across the US. As public support for education wanes, the price of tuition goes up, and education loan providers—both public and private—are making record profits while students default on their loan payments. It is a vicious cycle that ensures debt will continue
Geographies of Student Debt: Calls for Research and Action
While there are numerous organisations working towards student debt cancellation, there are hardly any organisations dedicated to studying how and why the student debt crisis ballooned to its current extent. Though debt can be elusive, it has profoundly material consequences. Some regions of the US have higher debt burdens than others, and it is not as simple as college costing more in those regions. College costs only answer for one part of a much larger puzzle that includes histories of defunding/dispossession of public resources, evasive and exploitative tax laws that make investments in higher education difficult, and cultural legacies of what constitutes a good life, to name only a few. In other words, there are spaces and places of student debt. Again, debt is not random, and it is critical to understand nuance to better advocate for debt forgiveness.
There are several potential pathways for geographic research that could include: regions of student debt (e.g. studying where, how, and why student debt burdens are highest); political ecologies of student debt (e.g. studying how banking emissions correlate to student debt transactions); financial geographies of student debt (e.g. studying how laws and policies enable the crisis); and speculative geographies of debt (e.g. studying what student futures are being disabled by debt burdens). As such, I want to conclude with a call for action. I would like to see something like a research collective dedicated to studying and addressing the student debt crisis, complementing the important work of organisations like the Debt Collective (https://debtcollective.org/). By providing a geographical perspective, we can demystify student debt, providing empirical research to guide activism. I believe we stand to make a meaningful intervention into the persistence and proliferation of student debt as acceptable collateral for funding our institutions (and our livelihoods by extension). We owe it to our students if nothing else. I am eager to hear others’ thoughts and to get to work.
Escobar A (1995) Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Graeber D (2011) Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn: Melville House
Hale K (2021) The $85 billion student loan payment restart weighs on racial wealth gap. Forbes 14 December https://www.forbes.com/sites/korihale/2021/12/14/the-85-billion-student-loan-payment-restart-weighs-on-racial-wealth-gap (last accessed 31 May 2022)
Pilkington E (2019) How Biden helped create the student debt problem he now promises to fix. The Guardian 2 December https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/dec/02/joe-biden-student-loan-debt-2005-act-2020 (last accessed 31 May 2022)
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