Phantom Futures: The Cultural Politics of Education-Related Debt

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My dissertation examines the cultural politics of education-related debt. In a time of spiraling higher education costs, I focus on students who face challenges repaying debts and participating productively in the market economy. Taking on debt in college orients students towards a supposedly “better future.” But what happens to those who are unable or unwilling to realize these better futures? This is the broad question that motivated my dissertation. The students I interviewed often complicated the familiar timeline of progress that posits education as leading to employment.

I carried out field research in two sites: i) for-profit colleges; and ii) Gallaudet University, a historically deaf university. I also analyzed content in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which I treated as a key archive of contemporary narratives about debt. The for-profit education networks where I conducted research were Virginia College, where I had taught in the general education program for one year, and the recently defunct ITT Technical Institute. I visited campuses in Austin, Texas; Baltimore, Maryland; Richmond, Virginia; Los Angeles, California; and Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. This regional breadth across the southwest, mid-Atlantic, west coast, and Midwest allowed me to reach more general conclusions.

My interviews, visual ethnography, auto-ethnography, and narrative analysis led me to focus closely on how students experience and invoke time. The for-profit colleges constantly asked students to imagine better and more secure futures in ways that distracted them from their present struggles. Such an orientation pushed students to incur further debt. At Gallaudet, the temporalities are different. The university’s ability to privilege deafness makes it a site of security and refuge; some students are therefore risking educational debt in order to access deaf culture. Yet, funding issued through Vocational Rehabilitation programs are conditional on a student’s ability to achieve future employment. This mandate influences how students think about their futures and creates deep tensions in their relationship to debt. In sum, by exploring how students imagine time, my dissertation presents a range of orientations to debt that can serve as alternatives to dominant cultural narratives.