"Redlining" was an historic and legal practice of racial housing discrimination that operated through racial preferences and was accompanied by systemic disinvestment in communities of color. In this essay, I extend the term redlining to describe the larger function and impact of student loan debt in the context of the contemporary neoliberal university, thinking of debt's impact as a critical aspect of larger systemic processes of "redlining higher education." Further, I suggest, there needs to be a fuller accounting within that of the impact that producing "mortgaged minds" has on the contours of knowledge production in the academy.
Historically, "redlining" was a practice in which appraisers, realtors, and banks took maps and literally drew red lines around designated neighborhoods and areas of a city imagined as "high risk." Banks would refuse to invest in those areas and lenders would refuse to make loans or offered borrowers less favorable terms. The status of "risk" assigned to such areas therefore marked them for disinvestment and that status, "risk," was in practice a status determined by the neighborhood's racial or ethnic composition--without regard to residents' qualifications or creditworthiness. "Redlining" real estate calculatedly demarcated access to low-interest federal loans, and in combination with legal discriminatory practices such as restrictive covenants, which wrote racial preferences into deeds of sale, regulated housing and home ownership by racial preference. These sanctioned practices contributed to a lasting condition of racial wealth inequality in the United States up to the present day. Income-and tax-based funding of public schools effectively meant that redlined neighborhoods were guaranteed lack of access to a quality education, producing a system of educational apartheid. Today the effects of those practices continue to impact the K-12 public education system, and they are felt at the college and university level, which can correspondingly be thought of as "redlined" educational environments.
The sanctioned practices of redlining and restrictive covenants were underscored by myriad forms of economic and housing discrimination, such as the selective use of local zoning ordinances or systemic poor rental conditions. Redlined urban areas, like the predominantly black and poor neighborhood of Reservoir Hill in Baltimore where I grew up (as the child of one of a handful of white families that purchased homes there in the 1970s in opposition to white flight and as a political choice in the wake of the 1968 urban uprisings), lacked access to food and basic services (no immediate grocery stores, inadequate trash removal), were considered less desirable to commercial investment, and were subject to militarized policing (occupied by army national guard tanks during a snow storm; giant spotlights run throughout the night in response to open air drug markets), all of which contributed to poverty, ill-health, stress, and under-resourced schools. Reservoir Hill, having experienced myriad forms of systemic disinvestment from which it has yet to "recover," is emblematic of the overall conditions of "social death" which mark black and poor communities across the United States as disposable.
Peddling education debt is a national practice that, like redlining, produces a discriminatory demarcation of who is in and who is out of the "neighborhood," in this case, of the university. Although low-interest student loans continue to be touted as creating "opportunity for all" and thus contributing to an American Dream of class mobility, the accumulation and distribution of student loan debt continues to not only mirror, but to reinforce the ongoing structures of racial wealth inequality, and conditions of de facto racial and class stratification of education in the United States.
Student loan practices not only borrow from the housing discrimination toolkit of "redlining," but also borrow from the more recent subprime crisis, with its reliance on a practice known as "reverse redlining," which refers to marketing the most expensive and onerous loan products to minority consumers. Groundbreaking research on the disproportionate default rates among borrowers attending for-profit schools and two-year colleges confirm this trend, and that these borrowers are also disproportionately low-income borrowers and students of color. (1) Even when these students leave college with what may appear to be smaller levels of debt, they have failed, this research suggests, to either gain the educational capital they need in return or are funneled into job markets that do not offer any opportunity to pay off the accumulated debt, thereby perpetuating race and gender segregation in educational opportunity and by extension, by occupation. These conditions are just now drawing public attention as student activists pushed for the use of the long dormant "borrower defense" law to cancel loans taken out by former students of Corinthian Colleges Inc., a for-profit venture that went bankrupt. "Federal regulators accused [Corinthian Colleges] of running advertisements that cited false statistics on the employment status and earnings of graduates." (2) The possibility of Federal debt forgiveness and now the potential for class-action suits by borrowers are just beginning to emerge as viable responses to the student loan crisis.
Educational debt not only affects access to and attrition from four-year schools, but subsequently impacts the pipeline to graduate education. Graduate school debt load in turn impacts pathways to the professoriate. These processes of what I call "trickle up" debt in the United States mean that it is important to pay closer attention to and analyze the effects of this trickle up, not only on the demographics of undergraduate and graduate school (who is in and who is out; and who ends up in which fields) but further, to ask ourselves what is the impact of education debt on a new generation of faculty (both contingent and tenure-track) carrying these new higher education debt-loads into the workplace. I see this essay as a provocation to further inquiry, attending to certain clues as "canaries in the mine" that point to the need to ask an expanded set of questions around education debt, including: What is the impact of education debt on faculty-in-debt as well as students? And, how is the shape of knowledge production itself impacted by these overall conditions of debt in higher education?
While it is outside the scope of this essay to generate new empirical data, I do want to take up and amplify the demands urgently put forth by my students and by recent social movements that the impact of debt be made visible and that we begin to "register" its effects. I then point to a constellation of signs in recent quantitative and survey data that, taken together, suggest we should attend more seriously to debt's impact on knowledge production in the university. The purpose of this essay, then, is to register "faculty-in-debt" as an important category for analysis along with student debt, and one that is growing in significance. Recent empirical research has shown that the professoriate does "not associate their colleague's debt with structural factors," and therefore has failed to register the conditions of debt, instead attributing debt and "financial inequalities to personal troubles." (3)
As noted, student loan debt shapes the demographics of the undergraduate classroom, and it remains an urgent crisis in our classrooms. At my current institution, the University of California, Irvine, student loan debt and rising tuition costs contribute to empty seats (those who never made it), fewer in-state students (reflecting increasing institutional reliance on out-of-state dollars), overwork (I regularly ask students for an accounting of how many hours they work in addition to school), and anxiety (over uncertain job prospects and how to pay this debt back). Student loan debt also marks a site of failure of the UC system and the state of California to meet the basic needs of students, some who are homeless (every quarter I have taught, I have had students living in cars or couch surfing), many of whom work exorbitant hours and take longer than four years to complete degrees, or never finish.
These are facets of the student debt crisis that have garnered the most press: The media has asked: How does student loan debt impact who gets a seat at the table of a four-year degree? Who is able to leverage student loan debt into degree attainment? And, who is able to convert that degree access into employment, and more specifically into employment that is sufficient to avoid default and make repayments on student loans? However, there are additional aspects of this crisis that are in need of further inquiry, attention, and study. One important area of silence is this "trickle up effect" of student loan debt accumulation: How does student loan debt impact who is able to go on to graduate study, the choices of what they study, and subsequently who is able to then go onto the academic job market and for which type of jobs? How does student loan debt impact those who enter the tenure-track? How might debt impact the actual attainment of tenure? In other words, by placing our attention on the "redlining" of higher education, I am not only referring to the problem of who has access to which types of loan products, and student loan debt as a problem for undergraduates that is centered around cost/affordability of a college education, although those remain critical questions. I want to draw attention to an additional penalty, a potentially significant aspect that has been ignored and represents a lasting impact of this trickle-up crisis. A new question to start asking is: What, then, is the effect of this debt load on faculty and how does it impact knowledge production in the academy? And this is why I extend my metaphor of...