To say Professor Nicholas D. Hartlep is moving at the speed of light is not hyperbole. He was born in Seoul, South Korea and is a transracial adoptee. His family moved from to Green Bay, Wis., where he grew up supporting the Green Bay Packers football team.
The pace of his life changed drastically after he enrolled as an undergraduate student at Winona State University (WSU). As Hartlep studied at WSU to become a teacher, he enlisted in its study abroad program and went to Granada, Spain; and then student-taught in Quito, Ecuador.
After graduating in December 2006 from WSU, Hartlep took a short break and worked as a substitute teacher until he finally landed a full-time position in the Rochester Public Schools (RPS). Hartlep says he was fortunate to find that RPS’ yearlong Graduate Induction Program (GIP) for “inexperienced” teachers would allow him to earn a Master of Science Degree (M.S.Ed.) from Winona State University’s (WSU) Rochester campus. After the GIP he and his wife moved to Milwaukee, Wis., where he was admitted to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s (UWM) Urban Education Doctoral Program (UEDP).
Enrolling in the doctoral program meant that Hartlep could teach at Harford University Elementary School during the day and attend graduate school at night. During that time, Hartlep was busy between doctoral coursework, his full-time job as a second-grade teacher, and raising his daughter with his wife.
Three college degrees and numerous scholarships later, Hartlep, then 28, found himself with student debt, something he and Lucille Eckrich write about in their co-authored article, Ivory Tower Graduates in the Red: The Role of Debt in Higher Education.
It was this personal experience as a college student that prompted Hartlep to co-edit the book, The Neoliberal Agenda and the Student Debt Crisis in U.S. Higher Education with Eckrich and a former doctoral student of his, Brandon Hensley.
Hear Nicholas Hartlep, assistant professor in the School of Urban Education at Metropolitan State University, present his new book, The Neoliberal Agenda and the Student Debt Crisis in U.S. Higher Education.
• 7 p.m., July 19 at East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, St. Paul.
Hartlep spoke recently from his office at Metropolitan State’s Midway Campus:
How long have you been teaching here at Metropolitan State University?
I started last fall (2016). This is my third semester teaching here at Metropolitan State.
Where did you previously teach?
I was at Illinois State University for four years in their Department of Educational Administration and Foundations. I taught Foundations of Education there. Here at Metropolitan State I am in the School of Urban Education.
Did you grow up in Minnesota?
My background is transracial adoptee. I was born in Korea and was adopted here in the Twin Cities, but I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Currently, I live in Hudson, Wisconsin.
What is it about Metropolitan State University that attracted you?
It’s a small world, if you ask me. The Dean of the School of Urban Education [Rene Antrop-Gonzalez] here at Metropolitan State hooded me when I received my Ph.D. from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He was a faculty member there and I knew him from back then. I knew he would be an excellent dean to work under. I was right! That was one reason why I chose to come to Metropolitan State.
But another reason is, Metropolitan State focuses on urban education and the fact that it’s located in the Twin Cities area, means that it is well situated to serve the community.
On top of that, I also came to do policy work and the State Capitol is located here in Saint Paul.
Is there something about the Metropolitan State community that stands out in comparison to traditional universities and colleges?
I think our words and our deeds align here at Metropolitan State. We are really walking the talk. Our mission and vision is urban focused, so I do think we are highly unique in that way.
But the prime example of why I believe Metropolitan State is different than other “neoliberal institutions” is the population we serve. We serve many students who are first in their family to go to college; including refugee students and other marginalized populations. That is why it is important for me to do a very good job of equipping these students with all the skills they need in order to be successful in their lives. We are the most affordable urban four-year institution in the state. And the students and faculty in the School of Urban Education is made up of a diverse population.
Certainly, there are areas where we can improve. I know that Metropolitan State is a teaching-focused university. Nevertheless, I still think research is important to do. It is very important for educators in higher education to do scholarly work; it keeps them sharp in the classroom.
One other important thing to consider about Metropolitan State is that it has a strong focus on professors to become stellar teachers. At research-focused institutions the pressure to write is the greatest force at play. That means sometimes the teaching duties get reassigned to graduate assistants and adjunct faculty members. Here at Metropolitan State, the teaching assignments take precedence over everything else we do. That keeps you on your toes.
You are passionate about race relations. What is it about that topic that interests you?
Race and socioeconomic critique are part and parcel to who I am. Race in general has been important to me, most likely because I am an adoptee and have always been aware of how race operates in society. Our new book centers race, centers economics, and critiques capitalism within higher education.
Was there a turning point in your career or life that changed you?
The turning point was college itself. The positive experience of feeling included, valued, loved and cared for that I experienced in college was a major turning point.
I had a miserable time sitting passively in class in high school. I had a critical mentality and I found the traditional teaching method—a “banking method”—very unengaging and dry. All that changed for me in college. For the first time in my life I really enjoyed school—in the sense of formal higher education. And I think the key difference is that in college you have more autonomy and are inspired by professors to read and write.
From kindergarten through 12th grade, I was a reluctant reader. I disliked reading. Towards the tail end of my bachelor’s degree, I fell in love with reading. I became an avid reader. Most of my high school friends and teachers would never envision that I am doing what I am doing right now.
The experience of going to college changed you?
Yes! I saw the lifestyle of these professors and thought to myself, ‘I see what you are doing. I want to do what you are doing. You get to think deeply. You get to write. And you get to teach.’ That combination of reading, teaching, research and service was really something that I saw and fell in love with. I consider myself very fortunate because to become a professor is very challenging.
What motivated you to write The Neoliberal Agenda and the Student Debt Crisis in U.S. Higher Education.
The current practice of higher education, based on the neoliberal agenda, is a pay-to-play sort of model. In my own case, I could not become a professor without acquiring a terminal degree. And I could not get a terminal degree without having the capital to invest in my future.
Now that I am a professor, the dilemma I feel is this dichotomy between a debtor, one who is trying to pay off his debt by working, and the establishment that I work for. My employer is an institution of higher education. Which means that some students are acquiring debt to pay for my salary. Although, I do understand that Metropolitan State has one of the lowest tuition rates within the state of Minnesota. Nevertheless, the thought that many students are becoming indebted to pay for their education remains unsettling within me in many ways because higher education should be accessible and not require debt in the first place.
I am fully aware that the profession I have chosen is not going to make me financially wealthy. If you have amassed a large amount of debt and you are not going to pay it back within your lifetime, then from an economic standpoint, that was a bad decision. Still, I consider myself lucky because I am only 33 years old. I have my whole life ahead of me. Even with all the difficulties I have faced in order to get here, I still consider myself an anomaly. There are millions of students out there that are not as lucky as I was.
Especially when you have these students that are sold this bill of goods whereby they are told that, after 10 years of making on-time payments on their student loan debts, it will be discharged. Then you have these politicians in the state and federal legislatures talking about eliminating the loan forgiveness program altogether. When that happens, it really shows the main ideology behind the whole system. And even these loan forgiveness programs have their own shortcomings. The student debt that is written off through the loan forgiveness program is considered personal income for federal tax purposes.
Traditionally education is viewed as a human capital from a neoliberal viewpoint. The regime claims that you have to make an investment on your future, and the return on your investment will balance itself out once you are done paying off your student debt. That is a typical neoliberal economic point of view.
With this book, I want to discuss the main cause for the student debt crisis. Ultimately, I want to be able to steer the discussion of the value of education in society towards a more equitable system. A vision that considers it a human right for everyone who chooses to pursue higher education.
Do you think government should fund higher education?
My personal view is that some level of higher education should be public and paid for. But we don’t have that system here in the United States. We have a system where we can go to K–12 grades supposedly free, minus the hidden fees. That is it.
And my main concern is, we have these legislators, both in the state and federal legislatures, being lobbied by the financial sector into having these conversations about who should pay for higher education. How are we going to fund it, etc.? And that is a big problem.
Instead of these bureaucrats and lobbying groups, I feel that the best discussions happen at a grassroots level. It is crucial for the demos to be involved in these deep and holistic conversations about the value of education in society and make decisions based on that. And, to tell you the truth, that discussion is taking place in certain pockets of the society.
But we live in a capitalist society. Much of our freedom is afforded to us by the success of the economy.
The student debt crisis in higher education is a problem caused by capitalism, in my opinion. Embedded within capitalism is this imperative for constant growth that is untenable. That is unsustainable from a global point of view. Human beings on this planet have limited means and resources. Incessant growth is the reason behind much of the problem—regardless of whether its climate change or economic misfortune—we humans are facing right now.
We talk about this in our book in more detail. Just to give you an excerpt, in chapter 10 of the book, there is an article by Kay Ann Taylor titled “Golden Years” in the Red: Student Loan Debt as Economic Slavery, where she talks about “the neoliberal capitalist agenda, which has been escalating for decades, college is viewed not as a venue to pursue intellectual curiosity or learning, but instead as economic human capital to determine which cog we fill in the oppressive, undemocratic neoliberal privatization scheme (Giroux, 2014).”
Taylor goes on to explain her theory of accumulation and disaccumulation even further. As a young man—I am 33—I have my life ahead of me. I have the time to repay my debt and then start accumulating assets. Taylor describes disaccumulation with her personal example as an older woman where, even though she has the college degrees she does not have the time to pay back the student debt she accrued as a student and start accumulating assets. Her life circumstances and her personal journey have led her to this point where, even with a Ph.D. degree, she feels helpless.
There is a whole industry in the financial sector that benefits from student debt. In fact, the federal government pays $38 to private debt collectors to retrieve $1 of student debt. Which means, taxpayers are paying $38 to retrieve $1 of student loan debt. That is absurd. That is illogical. It doesn’t make any economic sense. And why is that? Why do we have this problem?
The twisted irony is that the student loan debt crisis is becoming a problem in terms of debt peonage enslavement. The masters are corporations in the financial sector, and to some extent, the federal government. That is a direct result of the neoliberal agenda.
The other paradox of this student debt crisis is that, students are now becoming aware of the fact that they are going to go into debt, and as a result they start questioning their educational choices—like the majors and minors they choose to study. What happens when students start making these decisions based solely on economic sensibilities? It causes the shrinking and narrowing of the occupations that are lower paying. In fact, millennials are making these calculations in their minds as we speak. They are asking themselves, “Why become a social worker that helps society as opposed to a career that just secures money?” When it becomes transactional like that, it defeats the purpose of a liberal arts education. The holistic understanding of what an education is supposed to mean fails as a result.
Did you find any solution to this problem in your research?
The only way out of this mess is a system that is non-capitalistic or non-neoliberal. After poring through all the research on this topic, we found very few non-neoliberal or non-capitalist programs that would be practical here in the United States.
For example, we looked at work colleges that are small sets of colleges where students, in most cases, graduate debt-free. They fund their college education by working within the college—they build things while they are learning. Those tend to be rural and smaller institutions. Would it work at an institution like Metropolitan State? Maybe. Maybe not. Would it work at an institution like University of Minnesota? No, it most definitely would not work.
To exacerbate the matter, researchers in academia produce research findings that can be used for policy, and during that research they like to re-label things. Consequently, major publications will promote the story about the next silver bullet, like “income share agreements,” for example. They present it like it’s this novel approach that is going to save higher education, as we know it. But then when you dig deeper into it, you realize that these are not new concepts. There are authors and contributors in the book that talk about this phenomenon.
All this diversion takes our eyes off of the real root of the problem that we should be focusing on, like: neoliberal capitalism and debtfarism. Until we devote more time to the monetary system that we have here in the United States—and interest is a key component of that—we will not be having the crucial conversation that is required of us to resolve this problem.
Even the language of policy we use to define the student debt crisis in higher education is littered with neoliberal terms like generalizability, scalability, efficiency, and effectiveness. And they are just economic buzzwords. That is why we talk about the need for a new lexicon in our book. We need a whole new lingua franca to dismantle the neoliberal agenda in higher education.
What that means is, ultimately we need to think about and create the policy for higher education from bottom up, as opposed to the current format, which is top down. Perhaps, it’s a policy from the community, the demos, like the People’s Budget.
One last thing I want to mention is, many of the authors and contributors in our book have high amount of student debt. Nevertheless, some critics would argue that they are not representative of the student debt crisis, because the actual crises are folks with smaller amounts of debt; folks who went to for-profit predatory colleges; folks who didn’t get their degree, etc. Yes, this is true. And their voice matters a lot. But, so do the voices of those who became indebted to become academics, people who have accrued six-figure student loan debt in their pursuit for higher education.