ACCESS Seminar: Promises and profit in 'debt-free' higher education: Understanding the rise of Income Share Agreements in the United States
US student debt rises to $1.7 trillion in 2021, the value and accessibility of higher education has increasingly come under question. Even against the political backdrop of possible student debt cancellation, the growth of Income Share Agreements (ISAs) points to the persistent allure of a financial fix. Framed as an alternative to conventional student loans, ISAs entail investors covering tuition in exchange for a share of students' incomes after graduation. As the use of ISAs balloons within vocational institutions, rather than in the upper tiers of the higher education sector, it is increasingly apparent that the promises of inclusion mask practices of financial predation, enrolling students in financial relationships that maximize profit-extraction and specifically target marginalised (and often racialised) communities. Motivated by the rapid growth of ISAs in recent years, and a relative absence of scholarly attention to them, this presentation aims to illuminate the nature and broader significance of ISAs. Informed by grey literature, news articles, and academic writing on ISAs, we discuss the characteristics, histories and geographies of ISAs before examining the roles and motivations of three key actors or constituencies: students, higher education institutions and investment intermediaries. To understand the broader significance of ISAs, we employ three lenses: geographies of education; financialisation of social reproduction; and digital capitalism. ISAs reorient who pays for education and when, what sort of education is paid for, and how private markets profit from higher education. Our discussion of ISAs connects to processes more widely at play in the higher education sector, where the combination of individuating logics and public crises have unlocked new opportunities for private profit.
Tom Baker is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. His research examines the politics and practice of policy-making and the governance of socio-economic marginality. In recent years, his projects have focused on the ways collective problems are being addressed through the use of socially-minded market 'solutions'.