Pedagogy Can’t Solve Everything: Student Debt and Educational Development

“I put my absolute best foot forward in the classroom, but sometimes I just wonder if the amount of debt they are taking on could ever be worth it,” a biology instructor recently told me. I am often struck by how present financial issues are in conversations that are on the surface about pedagogical practice, and it is rare that I go a day as an educational developer without discussing student loan debt and student basic needs insecurity with instructors. (Note: I use the term “educational developer” to refer to people who do teaching and learning support work or instructional design in higher education). The teachers I work with feel guilty assigning additional readings or assignments that would in theory support student learning because they know that students may need to choose between paid work (to service or avoid debt) and their coursework. Others want to create an atmosphere of trust, honesty, and academic integrity, but are all too aware that students feel let down and punished before they even walk through the (proverbial, in the case of remote learning) door of their first class, having just taken on their first student loan. 

I am therefore surprised that the issues of the high cost of college tuition and student debt are rarely mentioned1 in the pages of To Improve the Academy, the journal of record for educational developers in the US, or other similar journals. When student debt is mentioned in the context of educational development scholarship, it is sometimes cited as a factor that should motivate us to adopt and advocate for evidence-based teaching practices. For example, the authors of a review of evidence-based teaching in higher education argue: “Given that college and university education is expensive and at many institutions the quality of education students receive may be questionable, it seems reasonable to ask, if not demand, that teachers modify their approaches to instruction and use the most effective teaching methods currently available.” This strikes me as both true and also potentially dangerous. While I agree that it is vital to build a culture of student-centered, reflective, and evidence-based teaching and learning in the university, I fear that connecting good teaching to the cost of college leads to a false conclusion: That if we could succeed in getting every instructor to engage with the evidence about how students learn and implement evidence-based teaching practices, then universities could have a better claim to the prices that they charge, and student debt would not be as morally reprehensible as it is now.

If educational developers aim to help “colleges and universities function effectively as teaching and learning communities,” it seems that we should also have a position and advocacy agenda regarding the cost of education. The process by which states have systematically withdrawn public funding from colleges and universities, transferring the financial burden to individual students has been well-documented as has the incredible burden that student debt and financial insecurity place on students and their families while they are in school and after they leave. Student debt disproportionately affects students of color, especially black students. “Crisis” doesn’t even feel like a strong enough descriptor at this point.

I recently read a blog post by English professor Marcia Klotz in which she writes about her changing relationship to her job as the costs of education have been shifted from the public to the individual. She recalls,

“When my paycheck came largely from state and federal taxes, I felt I was contributing to a broadly recognized public good, which (if pushed) I might have defined as maintaining an educated citizenry. But now that the biggest part of my salary is paid by my students, on borrowed funds that they will be hard-pressed to pay back (the job market being what it is), I can’t help but feel guilty, worrying that my own well-being comes at the direct cost of their future…No matter how critical the content of my class may be, its very existence contributes to student exploitation, generating debt that increases their precarity and limits their future options.”

As Klotz explains, debt isn’t just an unfortunate side effect of our educational system, it runs interference against education’s liberatory potential.

Jeffrey Williams coined the term “pedagogy of debt” to describe this phenomenon in his collection How to Be an Intellectual. No matter what we teach or how we teach it, there are nefarious underlying lessons taught by the student finance system, and debt more generally. These lessons include that “higher education is a consumer service” and that the worth of a person is determined by their productivity and ability to provide a return on investment. When instructors recognize these underlying lessons, they can address them and resist them, but at least in my experience, they are a major obstacle to creating the kind of learning community that most educators aim for.

Because many educational developers support student learning through faculty development, it is worth also mentioning the ways in which debt and its pedagogy affect instructor’s lives and career trajectories. Researchers and educational developers have noted the importance of hiring and retaining a diverse faculty for student learning. However student debt that “trickles up” to the instructors (tenure-track and more commonly non-tenure-track) significantly affects the demographic composition of faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences. A recent report from the Hope Center at Temple University, “23% of educators with student loan or credit card debt experienced food insecurity, 40% experienced housing insecurity, and 8% experienced homelessness.” This is of course an outrage on its own, but from an educational development perspective, co-author of the report Prof. Sara Goldrick-Rab says it best: “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”

I recognize of course that educational developers (and faculty developers, instructional designers, etc.) are not politicians or public policy experts. We as a group may not be be the best equipped to propose the exact mechanism by which college tuition should be made free or student debt be forgiven, but I do think that we have an obligation to support and advocate for these things. I also think we need to resist any narrative that claims that good pedagogy can make student debt “worth it.” Infusing our teaching with care, reflection, and evidence is a professional responsibility and an ethical obligation to our students. Professional development and support related to teaching are necessary services that universities should provide to their employees, and are fundamental to student learning. But pedagogy can’t fix the cost of education. Advocating for free college and student debt forgiveness seems crucial to the mission of educational development right now.

Notes

  1. I know this is a crude measure, but other search terms such as “tuition,” and plain “debt” do not turn up much of interest either. I am currently working on similar searches of other journals.

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