Promises and Profit in “Debt-Free” Higher Education: The Geographies of Income Share Agreements in the United States

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Rosenman, Emily
Cohen, Dan
Baker, Tom
Arapko, Ksenia
FinTech , Higher Education , Income share agreements , Social reproduction , Student debt
As student debt in the United States rose to $1.7 trillion in 2021, the value and accessibility of higher education has been a subject of fierce public debate. In this context, income share agreements (ISAs) are framed as an alternative to conventional student loans. ISAs entail investors paying a student’s tuition in exchange for a share of the student’s future income. As the use of ISAs increases, especially within U.S. vocational schools, there is evidence that ISAs have used predatory financial practices aimed at marginalized students. Motivated by the rapid growth of ISAs in the United States and the relative absence of geographic attention to them, this article discusses their nature and broader significance to geographic debates. Informed by gray literature, news articles, industry documents, and the scant academic writing on ISAs, we discuss the characteristics, histories, and geographies of ISAs before examining the roles and motivations of three involved constituencies: students, higher education institutions, and investment intermediaries. In doing so, we highlight how ISAs reorient who pays for education and when, what sort of education is paid for, and how private markets profit from higher education. We then highlight the broader significance of ISAs to geographical understandings of (1) the financialization of social reproduction, (2) geographies of education, and (3) digital capitalism. We argue that ISAs’ individuating logics and broader context of social reproductive crises are revealing of a wider trend toward private profit via predatory inclusion, accelerated by financial technologies.