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I am your dividend

Flanked by trees, telephone poles and wires, a Black woman walks toward the camera and away from the horizon. A voiceover intones: ‘I’m only seventeen but I know about investing.’ One of five ads in the United Negro College Fund’s (UNCF) ‘I am your dividend’ campaign, each TV spot modifies the long-standing UNCF slogan ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste ...’ with ‘... but a wonderful thing to invest in’, introducing a new financial product, the Better Futures Stock, as a means of contributing to the fund. At once monetary and ‘social’, ‘I am your dividend’ proposes a future of realized profit and human potential through financialization. Though here articulated in terms of philanthropy, for universities, the federal government and the student debt industry, those like Sydni, the woman in the image, are both product and producer. Articulating what Jackie Wang calls ‘expropriation through financial inclusion’, Sydni’s claim to ‘know about investing’ signals the imperative of the entrepreneurial self, the reduction of knowledge production to financial speculation and, perhaps, an ironic and resistive ‘knowingness’ regarding investments in higher education. This chapter explores and critiques this intertwining of knowledge, debt and diversity in the financialized university.

Flanked by trees, telephone poles and wires, a woman in silhouette walks toward the camera and away from the horizon. A voiceover intones: ‘I'm only seventeen but I know about investing.’ This image is from ‘Sydni’, one of five ads in the United Negro College Fund's (UNCF) ‘I am your dividend’ campaign. Each TV spot includes its long-standing slogan ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste …’ and adds ‘… but a wonderful thing to invest in’, introducing a new financial product, the already defunct ‘Better Futures Stock’, as a means of contributing to the Fund. ‘Sydni’ is the longest and most compelling of the commercials.

Figure 17.1 Still from ‘Syndi | #betterfutures Full Story 2013’, part of the UNCF ‘I am your dividend’ campaign.

While the UNCF and this advertisement are not literally offering a return on investment, the image of Black students and the purpose of higher education in ‘Sydni’ depicts education as fundamentally an economic value proposition, moving the commercial beyond earlier discourses of opportunity, community uplift and inclusion, into the picture of financialized capitalism. Instead, ‘Sydni’ and the UNCF's revised slogan represent education as a speculative transaction wherein present investment either pays out or is paid back, later, and entrepreneurial students pursue college as a hedge against declining labour market outcomes. What is learned in university classrooms, much as what is produced in financialized capitalism, is subsidiary to the paper value of the degree. This transition is especially significant with regard to Black students and their exposure to a predatory, extractive and constraining system of higher education funding. In what follows I put ‘Sydni’ in context of both the historical promise of education in the American Black community and the post-Second World War shifts in US higher education that lead to the ad's embrace of financialized higher education, which renders Blackness as a surplus value for ‘investors’ while exposing Black students to predatory finance capital.

Black American life and ‘the education gospel’

Education, especially literacy, is historically central to Black life in the US. Criminalized as a fundamental threat to chattel slavery, reading and writing – skills associated with formal schooling – bore a significant promise of liberation for the enslaved. As Frederick Douglass (2010 [1845]) writes in his Narrative, literacy opened ‘the pathway from slavery to freedom’. Following the Civil War and formal emancipation, education remained a site of significant contestation as literacy tests, combined with poll taxes and other repressive mechanisms, maintained the disenfranchisement of Black Americans, and the poor generally, throughout the post-Reconstruction US South.

In this context of repressive exclusion and disenfranchisement, Black thinkers Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois also debated the promising role of higher education in the Black community at the turn of the twentieth century, with each advancing a case for education in the name of racial uplift. Washington argued for mass practical education on the grounds of economic advancement and empowerment; DuBois, the first Black PhD to graduate from Harvard, advocated for a vanguard ‘Talented Tenth’ to lead Black Americans toward further liberation and equality. Despite their differences, both understood education as a social and economic good, prefiguring recent discussions of the value of higher education in the US, including for Black Americans.

Both visions of higher education and racial uplift align with what sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom (2017) refers to as ‘the education gospel’. Drawing on the work of earlier scholars, McMillan Cottom describes the education gospel as ‘our faith in education as moral, personally edifying, collectively beneficial, and a worthwhile investment no matter the cost’. In Lower Ed, her devastating critique of for-profit colleges, McMillan Cottom argues that the role of this gospel must be understood in terms of the late twentieth-century redefinition of higher education as an ‘individual good’ rather than a collective venture. She further insists that in this updated context the gospel mutates from a theory of social change into a blanket answer to personal and systemic hardships. This change in both the conception of higher education and the function of the education gospel is intimately tied to the financialization of higher education. Unsurprisingly, this shift toward individually financed economic good occurs in the aftermath of higher education's limited opening up to Black and other excluded communities during the post-Second World War period.

‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste’: the United Negro College Fund and post-war US higher education

Founded in 1944, the same year the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944 (or GI Bill) was signed into law, the UNCF began raising money to expand college access to Black Americans, especially at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). While the GI Bill offered a range of benefits, including educational benefits, to returning veterans, it structurally, and intentionally, excluded most Black veterans. The UNCF provided an alternate source of funding for Black institutions and the students they serve, spreading the ‘education gospel’ in the face of the state's racist exclusion, while also contributing to the explosive growth in American higher education post-Second World War.

Fuelled by public investments in the warfare/welfare economy of the Cold War, US higher education grew by nearly every measure. Increases in the number and size of two-year, open-enrollment community or junior colleges, combined with pushes for tuition fee-free attendance, provided access to more, and more diverse, students, especially in the years following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court Decision. Centred on accessible, comprehensive post-secondary education for all state residents, California's Master Plan for Higher Education in California, 1960–1975 exemplified this trend by calling for an enlarged and integrated, tuition fee-free, three-tiered system of research institutions, smaller state universities and a network of junior colleges. Following implementation of the plan, California also emerged as a bellwether for the American university as a site of intense struggle around race, class and imperialism as student movements developed at all levels of the state system. The founding of the Black Panther Party at Merrit Junior College and the Ethnic Studies movement at San Francisco State illustrate how post-war higher education expansion led to demands for change in the name of emancipation, peace and the radicalization of knowledge production. Unsurprisingly, these events prompted a backlash that played a key role in the financialization of higher education in the US.

Coincidentally, the UNCF introduced its famous slogan, ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste’, in 1972, the same year that Congress expanded the federal student loan programme and created the Student Loan Marketing Association, or Sallie Mae. So, just as the slogan and accompanying advertisements rolled out, the American state shifted its approach to funding college education. The build-up of student borrowing that followed was not simply added on to the existing system. Rather, as Morgan Adamson (2009) writes, ‘While the federal loan program expanded the number of students attending the university, it quickly became the largest source of federally funded aid for higher education.’ The emergent dominance of student loans in paying for higher education not only changed the relationship between students and universities but also helped to restructure universities by moving them toward a ‘cost-sharing’ model. Student loans on the one hand tied higher education financing more tightly to the labour market as repayment pressures reshaped the educational experience for students, while, on the other hand, converting admissions into a central revenue source for university operations generally. Combined, these factors altered the experience of education, transforming it into a more directly economic activity, with students pushing for so-called employable fields with high ‘wage premiums’, while universities changed both their curriculums and physical infrastructures to attract students and federally guaranteed loans for tuition.

‘I'm only seventeen but I know about investing …’: knowledge, investments and the racialized entrepreneur of the self

To return to the image we began with, by the time the UNCF introduced the ‘I am your dividend’ campaign in 2013, the changes to US higher education described above had expanded and intensified, affecting all students, but especially historically excluded students. Despite the loan burden and rising cost of tuition, college attendance remained, until around the time of the Great Recession of 2008, a ‘good deal’ for most students. However, the stress on degrees in an increasingly post-industrial economy produced intense pressure to pursue post-secondary education, especially for the US Black population already suffering from long-term structural unemployment. Ronald Reagan declared as a presidential candidate that the state should not ‘subsidize intellectual curiosity’; by the end of his presidency in 1988, inclusion and opportunity were indexed to an economic calculation resting on the speculative value of degrees. With the education gospel fully turned toward economic returns, Black and other economically vulnerable students were exposed to a racialized, predatory credit system.

Though this period represented the subsumption of public goods into economic processes associated with neoliberalism, the holistic vision of education did not entirely recede. Now individual student borrowers invested in themselves to secure private gains in the name of community advancements. Seeming to speak to Booker T. Washington's emphasis on a practical education benefiting individual and community alike, while allowing for DuBois's rhetoric of a talented tenth to perpetuate the dream of meritocracy, the new regime of education financing appeared consistent with the UNCF's mission. This logic is on full display in ‘Sydni’, where higher education and the Black student are simultaneously presented as investment vehicles and the moral future of the Black community (compare Kish, Chapter 15, on the ethical imaginaries of impact investing).

Speaking not to what she will study but of financial knowledge that precedes the university education that contributions to the UNCF enable, Sydni tells us that at ‘only seventeen’ she knows that to invest is to ‘believe in something, buy shares in it, watch it grow’. Speaking the language of finance while humming the tune of the education gospel, Sydni embeds investment in belief and intellectual growth in speculative transactions, which extend into a financial proposition for her community's future: ‘So, what if you could invest in the future, the future of kids, like a stock. Not the kind of stock that's about making money but a stock for social change.’ Soon after, Sydni specifies that ‘social change’ in this context means philanthropy: ‘When you invest it helps kids go to college. I could be one of the first college graduates from my family. The first philanthropist from my neighbourhood. And if I'm the first, then maybe there's a second and a third.’ Here the line between ‘making money’ and ‘social change’ blurs as the entire cycle believe–invest–grow transforms Sydni into a figure for capitalism generally and finance capital in particular.

Karl Marx offers this formula for productive capitalism, Money→Commodity→Money1 (M-C-M1), which represents the movement from investment (M) in the production of the commodity (C) to value yielded as profit through exchange (M1). This formula aims to capture the degree to which capitalist production is oriented towards the accumulation of ever more money, rather than the production of commodities for their ‘use value’. In the terms of ‘Sydni’, funders invest in Sydni, who then earns a degree, which leads to the financial success that enables further philanthropy. On the one hand, the product is the college certification, especially since what Sydni will study is left unnamed, and once produced it is sold on the labour market for a handsome price; on the other hand, since the investment pitch focuses not on college but the would-be student, it is Sydni who is the commodity to be offered for sale on the future labour market. But the attempt to map belief→investment→grow onto Marx's M-C-M1 ultimately breaks down because of this ambiguity around the commodity and the spot's embrace of financialization, which is better abbreviated as M-M1. While the visual rhetoric of the spot clearly pictures Sydni, not higher education, as a worthy investment, her value is abstractly linked to the degree, without which there is no chance of becoming a philanthropist. Deserving of financial support, Sydni is translated into investment information; she is a young Black woman with purpose, a racialized entrepreneur of the self. Yet all this future labour is entirely abstract, lacking determinate content and with an undetermined value to be rendered at an unknown later date. Between hard-working high school Sydni and wealthy philanthropist Sydni is the generic university degree purchased through the UNCF, then sold on the labour market.

For Sydni the return on such an investment faces potential diminishment, since it is contingent on what she actually sells her labour for. But as an investment in financialized higher education it is a nearly immediate projection of value. After all, in the financialized university, where debt-financed loans pay tuition fees and enrolment is directly tied to the economic viability of institutions, every student increases the speculative value of the university. In this sense, casting Sydni as a ‘dividend’ unwittingly illustrates the two-fold financial logic the ad responds to. First, as promotion of the abstract, speculative value of higher education, ‘Sydni’ represents education as a sort of tradeable market position; second, as simultaneously embedding within that representation the speculative value of the similarly abstracted, future labours required of Sydni in college and after graduation for realization.

Expropriation and exploitation through inclusion: race, risk and student debt

Though the UNCF is not a creditor, it is important to see the ad as intimately bound up with student debt and the logic of financialization. The ‘cost-sharing’ model that justifies the student debt regime in US higher education is a form of securitization: distributing and privatizing the risk of educational investment by spreading it across students and institutions while also producing a tradeable (non)asset-backed financial product priced in terms of current market value and credit rating. In a system of securitization, the price of the security is based on the projected value of the underlying loan, that is, the potential value of the repayment of the interest-bearing loan, which relies on the borrower's future wages. Because this is speculative value it may never be realized and the student (or philanthropic investor) may never receive a dividend, but the projected increase in the value of the degree and the interest collected on the loan serve as derivative products that can be leveraged by financial institutions, hedge funds and boards of trustees through continued transactions.

Student debt comes to prominence as higher education expands to Black and other historically marginalized students. Inclusion into higher education follows a pattern of inclusion in liberal capitalism, leading not to, or not only to, opportunities for Black Americans, but to new forms of expropriation and exploitation through race. Student loans operate as what Keenaga-Yamahtta Taylor (2019) calls, in relation to race and the US housing market, ‘predatory inclusion’. In that context, access to mortgage lending and the promise of homeownership exposed Black homebuyers to a realty industry structured by spatialized racial difference and unaccountable creditors backed by Federal policy. Black families became the owners of loans on substandard properties whose values were depressed by the history of redlining and white flight. Mortgage brokers, meanwhile, collected inflated interest payments until foreclosure came to pass. These practices culminated in the mortgage crisis of 2008, a collapse that precipitated a 40% drop in Black wealth. A different form of predatory lending in the contemporary US is discussed by Rossipal (Chapter 9), who examines the entanglement of immigration bonds and racialized border restrictions.

Scholar Jackie Wang points out a similar dynamic in the long-term effects of the ‘racial debt gap’ as ‘Federal student loans – seemingly not designed to be predatory – facilitate predation’ through for-profit colleges, and rising tuition fees at public universities leave ‘black [sic] and Latinx students [to] graduate with greater debt loads than whites’ (Wang 2018: 128). In fact, student debt is an especially noxious form of what Wang calls ‘expropriation through financial inclusion’ [emphasis in original], since in the US it cannot be discharged through bankruptcy, affecting already racialized credit scores that are used to discriminate against Black job applicants. Here student debt's direct relationship to the labour market and the labour of the student is primary. This, in turn, suggests a revision of Wang's formulation insofar as student debt and the financialization of higher education combine expropriation – the direct extraction of profit or value through compounding interest on undischargeable debt – with exploitation – the compulsion to produce profit or surplus value for another through a wage. Because the ‘asset’ backing the student loan – the student's knowledge and labouring capacities – unlike a house, cannot be repossessed, the indebted student is yoked to their employment, unable to pursue job or career changes regardless of circumstance or desire. Thus, the Black student is hailed by an education gospel that promises a better spiritual and material life through increased earning potential, only to be permanently indentured to an ever-diminishing labour market. 1


‘Sydni’ and the UNCF's ‘I am your dividend’ adoption of the language of finance must be understood in terms of the debt-driven financialization of US higher education and racialized risk. The spot, despite its insistence on the seemingly intrinsic value of education and hard work, elides both in what it says and shows us about Sydni. The only glimpse of schooling we see is Sydni carrying books, and a whiteboard with the word ‘ECONOMICS’ written on it; nowhere do we hear her speak passionately about what she will learn, or even the career she hopes to pursue. Instead we are given the figure of the philanthropist, someone that, by definition, has surplus capital they can gift to, or invest in, others (i.e., like those the ad targets as potential funders). Rhetorically disconnected from the labour market that Sydni is actually destined for, college is presented as a transaction leading to a future of riches. Indeed, if labour enters the picture at all, it is in the catch line ‘I am your dividend’, which might be understood as the continual production of profit through Sydni's future work in the economy where, the lower the wage, the higher return for the capitalist. Put in the context of the racialized distribution of risk, which would have to account for the dismal employment rate and wage data for Black Americans, combined with the extractive, predatory system of credit that targets Black communities, college becomes one long-shot bet among others in a system where, as in any other casino, the house always wins.

Further resources

Adamson, M. (2009) ‘The Human Capital Strategy’, Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization 9(4): 271–284.

Ferguson, R. (2017) We Demand: The University and Student Protests. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kish, Z. and Leroy, J. (2015) ‘Bonded Life: Technologies of Racial Finance from Slave Insurance to Philanthrocapital’, Cultural Studies 29(5–7): 630–651.

Martin, R. (2002) Financialization of Daily Life. Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP.

Moten, F. (2013) ‘The Subprime and the Beautiful’, African Identities 11(2): 237–245.

Works cited

Adamson, M. (2009) ‘The Human Capital Strategy’, Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization 9(4): 271–284.

Douglass, F. (2010 [1845]) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books.

McMillan Cottom, T. (2017) Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. New York: The New Press.

Taylor, K-Y. (2019) Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Wang, J. (2018) Carceral Capitalism. Boston: Semiotext(e)/MIT Press.


1 See the chapters by Medien (Chapter 7) and Dickson et al. (Chapter 8) on the new forms of unpayable debts imposed on migrants caught at the intersection of Britain's hostile border regime, and attempts to participate in social institutions supposedly designed to provide education and healthcare for all.
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The entangled legacies of empire

Race, finance and inequality


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