Your Debt, Your Self: Classification Situations in the Digital Society

I wrote a book about for-profit colleges that was released earlier this year. Student loan debt is a big part of that story. Frankly, debt is the main reason anyone is usually interested in for-profit colleges. These programs are very expensive and the students who disproporitionately rely on them for access to the higher education we need to remain viable workers in the new economy have the least means to pay.

A smaller part of that story was how students are delivered to for-profit colleges through data brokers and data aggregators. Cathy O’Neil describes how these work in her book, “Weapons of Math Destruction”. These information brokers use the vast amounts of trace data we produce as a new feature of our daily lives in a digitally-mediated society to efficiently target prospective students who are vulnerable to the transformative promises at for-profit colleges. You know all those forms you fill out to get a discount on toilet tissue at the grocery store, tampons at the drugstore or to win a free lunch from the local Mexican restaurant*? They go into a big ocean of data collected about you and millions of others like you.


Sociologists Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy call these algorithmic efficiencies the glue that binds our society. These classification situations are how class hierarchies are made real and viable in a digital society. When we produce the data that defines who we are governments and firms use that data to deliver us service that are the “right fit” for who we are. The problem is, what if the entire point of a serivce or product is to transform who we are? That is the case with higher education. It is not supposed to be predicated on who we are — our race, class, gender, social status, family background, geography — but who we are trying to become. Generally, we are all trying to become winners in the new economy. We want good jobs, job security, a home, savings, time, flexbility and diginity. The good jobs that promise those things generally demand we go to college. To compete for the social status we all desire, we have to access college but not all colleges can afford us a chance at being winners.

When data brokers and data aggregators use our social location to shape our access to the most vital means of transforming our social location, our class structure becomes fixed. That means, for millions of people, no matter what they do, they will remain stuck in the circumstances of their birth.

For a lot of people, that means taking on tons of student debt in ways that circumscribe their quality of life.

I talked about that in a great live call-in editiion of the podcast, “Death, Sex, and Money” this week. The broadcast spoke with people struggling with student loan debt, accrued in for-profit colleges and not-for-profit colleges. Take a listen.

*stop doing this.