Monday, October 14, 2013

Student Loans: A Life Sentence of Punishment For Grad School

I used to be one of those people who thought that arguments for the abolishment of student loan debt were mostly whiny. They're called loans. We knew that when we got them. I pay my loans. I've written extensively about my complicity in the insanity of higher ed debt. I accept my responsibility.

But student loan debt in its current form is not only unfair, it's unjust. Those of us who took on greater debt even than the average college student are going to, en masse, be impoverished for life under this system. Current student loan debt has huge and obvious implications for the economy, as discussed in these articles, but I wonder if people are considering the plight of a smaller but still significant population of under- and unemployed academics who will be saddled by enormous payments (not to mention the outrageous effects of interest on the final bill. for a much longer period of time).

I'm talking about myself here.


It's Campus Equity Week Oct 28 and the focus is on adjunct justice, the move to technology to replace teaching, and (ETA) student debt relief. Some of their events (e.g. the play For Profit, which explores not only the moral quandary of working in for profit, but the issue of corporatization of all higher ed, and the issue of student debt. This is the precise situation of someone I am very close to, btw.) I want to make it clear that public higher ed is just as guilty of fleecing students as for profit. I have some personal experience with for profit education. Its critics are not wrong. But higher ed is complicit in the boom-and-bust loan cycle as well. It's not a bad guys versus good guys scenario.

The real kicker is that there is no way to declare bankruptcy on student loan debt. If you go on an ill-advised shopping spree and can't pay off your new furniture and car in a few years, you can discharge the debt or deal with it for pennies on the dollar. This could even apply to gambling debts. But student loans are not an option.

Kids -- and I was a kid -- in my situation graduating in the early oughts, were sold a bill of goods.

We cruised into grad school on the tail end of an economic boom, during a time when credit card companies set up tables in the commons and gave us free t-shirts if we signed up.

We were told by our professors that jobs would be waiting, that the baby boomers would retire and with more and more students attending college every year, well. The math is clear.

We were permitted to recklessly take on more and more debt with little to no counseling about what it would mean for us down the road.

We were recruited eagerly as part of a higher education scheme predicated on the cheap labor of willing graduate students to deal with the masses of students. We were underpaid for our work and many of us were denied benefits to subsidize higher education, despite the astronomical inflation of tuition over the last decade. Is the current structure of TAs anything other than intellectual sharecropping? Are loans not liens? And is our harvest not decimated by factors out of our control?

And then the economy tanked, and the job market for academia went from "precarious" to "deadly."


Rolling Jubilee has great data on this, and their goal is to buy off student loan debt, but look at the small amount they've raised ($60k to fight $12mil in debt. I can't afford to give them money to help people like me, because I can barely help people like me!). Not nearly enough of us are engaged in an issue and fight that should be at the heart of the post-academic movement. ETA just discovered the Student Debt Crisis website. Awesome!

We are all in this situation, post-ac-ers! We are Margaret Mary if she had taken out $100,000 to pay for her education. This is a CRISIS for those of us in a new class made of the highly educated and financially screwed. Inasmuch as adjunct issues are issues of concern for anyone post-ac/alt-ac/higher ed, student loan debt is an issue for us all. No one interested in higher education reform can ignore the issue of student loan debt and its profound and unjust impact. 

My partner and I work full time and we are treading water each month. At a time in our lives when we could start 529s for our daughters or think ahead towards retirement, we feel lucky to make ends meet. We sometimes do not. We don't qualify for welfare because of our income, but that figure doesn't take into account the $1k we pay each month to debt collectors. We have very little credit card debt compared to a LOT of people, own 2 cars that are over 10 years old, and a house with a very reasonable mortgage compared to our earnings. We're on IBR. We are not extravagant spenders. Every month we scale back and scale back. Our lives more and more closely resemble the lives of working class earners despite our upper middle class education. (I'm basing this on wikipedia. Forgive me. If Sloan Sabbith could explain this to me, it would be great.) We're one car breakdown away from screwed. Christmas this year looks... iffy. I'm not sure our kids will go to college even though they are CRAZY smart. I mean, what were we thinking, to have a family at all? LOL, right??!

I did some reading about the structure of federal lending and was really appalled to learn about the difference in rules that apply to these programs versus garden variety debt. I never took out private loans because the word on the street was that they were horrible, predatory, ruthless collectors. I thought, The benevolent government has all these plans! All this flexibility! Loan forgiveness! Boy, what a crock. If you default, you are not eligible. * If your student loan servicer changes three, four times, it is easy to accidentally miss a payment because you have to learn a new system, reestablish payment dates and procedures, etc. Everyone is late sometimes. If you're deciding to pay a grand for student loans or a grand to fix your car, you're gonna fix your car! Ten years of absolute perfection is unrealistic, and amounts to is indentured servitude, and there is no wiggle room.

Imagine the drain on the economy. The percentage of under/unemployed college grads is crazy; the percentage of grad students even more so. Those numbers are growing, and many of us are facing 10, 20, 30+ years of this financial situation. It's simply unsustainable. It's economic suicide. It's beyond a disproportional response to ignorant, poor choices. It punishes everyone. It's corrupt and lousy and cruel and I'm adding my voice to those who think abolishment is appropriate and just.


* Edited to clarify and correct information about eligibility for PSLF. Don't forget PSLF could be repealed and there's no guarantee it will exist in 10 years. The more you know!


  1. Your professors should not have suggested that high paying jobs were the inevitable result of higher and higher education. If they made such promises, you should not have taken them at face value. I am very sympathetic to your position and hope that at some point in your future, your education pays off or that the U.S. government finds a way to relieve your financial burdens.

  2. Joseph Fruscione (@ProfessorF74)October 15, 2013 at 8:03 AM

    I've been struggling with this for the last 7-8 years since I finished my PhD. (From a department that gave me no stipends or fellowships. It was all hard work. And loans.)

    I'm hoping things have changed, and that graduate programs (esp. in Humanities, where I am) meaningfully prepare students for the job marketS--i.e., not just the "Get a PhD, become a tenure-track professor" tactic.

    In my case, I'm obscenely lucky: my wife is the primary breadwinner, and we've been able to pay my loans back gradually while saving for the future and so on. She's never given me an iota of guilt or grief about how her salary is paying off my loans. Nonetheless, I have 5-6 (and counting) income streams to pay of loans, contribute to our family budget, and so on. I win the bread too, just one slice at a time/

    Before I got married back in 2011, I dreaded monthly bill-paying, especially that $400+/month to Sallie Mae. I had a roommate, side tutoring jobs, and two adjunct gigs at local universities.

    One of these days, I hope to have a better-paying full-time job--inside or outside academia--that helps me pay back loans more quickly. Frankly, it's unconscionable for universities to keep admitting graduate students, sending them into a flooded market for teaching positions, and then offering them low-paying, un-benefitted work for "teaching experience."

  3. Joseph,
    Thanks for your comment. My understanding is that very few departments or even universities at large have resources available to grad students who must prepare for work outside academia. It's a very, very, very slow change. This is why I think websites and projects like How to Leave Academia, Chronicle Vitae, and Versatile PhD are vitally important. I'm glad your situation has worked out to be sustainable! Lauren

  4. Lauren ~ so glad, not about debt of course, but to see this article addressing the under-publicized aspect of student loan debt among adjuncts. I get private comments and also can't help but notice how much traffic student loan debt stories draw. The most popular post ever on the NFM blog is about debt relief. Posted in 2009, it still draws the most traffic.

    I wish more adjuncts would speak out on debt like Joe does...that every adjunct with a debt story would speak out...and that we would all make common cause with the debt relief movement.

    But a point of correction (two way because it reminds me that I need to focus on it much, much more between now and October 28): adjunct student loan debt *is* a major Campus Equity Week issue.

  5. Just noticed this, Vanessa -- will correct this. And thanks for your commentary. I agree we should all be more forthright about the impact debt has on our lives. I like the Student Debt Relief org's #outwithstudentdebt push to get individual stories shared. Many on their site are grad students.

  6. Joe ~ are you open to my adding this to #AdjunctStories posts? There are very few debt stories there, yet we all know what a huge burden it is.


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