Student Loan Debt and its Vicissitudes

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague asked me to write to a prospective MA student about why he should come to our program with funding, rather than going to More Prestigious Program without subsidy. Knowing that I had incurred quite a hefty sum of student loan debt in the course of acquiring my PhD, he assumed that I might have a few choice things to say to our prospective.

I have to admit that I hesitated, because I’ve had a hard time making the connection between my own financial messes and any broader socio-economic circumstances that might have contributed to them. There is no question that I made some very bad choices with my finances in my 20s, and that I am quite literally paying the price for those choices now. On a recent episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher noted that to have student loan debt is to start off your working life with a mortgage and no house to show for it. That’s exactly correct. In fact I have known for a long time that short of some drastic and unforeseen change of fortune befalling me, I will never be a homeowner. I already have a mortgage, and I can’t afford a second.

This happened to me even though I did a good many things “right” regarding my education. Perhaps this suggests something of the nature of the crisis. In any event, here is my trajectory, in brief.

I completed my undergraduate education with zero debt, thanks to my parents’ planning and a good public university that wasn’t out-of-control expensive. I was offered a 4-year fellowship package to pursue my combined MA/PhD at Prestigious University, with the explanation that students usually finished their degrees in 5 years, with the last year requiring only “Terminal Graduate Registration” at a nominal fee. So far so good, right?

It turns out that the 5-year completion plan was not feasible, particularly for students entering the combined MA/PhD program, as I was. Later, when I was coming closer to my ultimate 9-year completion time for my degree, I learned that 7-9 years was the average in my program.*

But as I mentioned before, there was another reason why longer TTD statistics would have seemed somewhat irrelevant to the issue of student funding, and that is: in 1997, when I began my degree, almost all students could be assured to advance to Terminal Graduate Registration (TGR) status by their fifth year, where only a very nominal tuition fee applied. So even if students were taking longer than 5 years to finish, no one was complaining much.

This all changed during my 6th year in the program. Prestigious University decided to increase TGR fees by 200% over a 4-year period (this happened in 2 steps, so the decision was first for 100% increase over 2 years, and then for a second 100% increase the next 2 years), stating that “the main reason is to provide an incentive to decrease the time to degree, to get people through in a fairly quick fashion. It is in no one’s interest for Ph.D. students to remain in the Ph.D. program for six to eight years.” Never mind that this top-down decision was not preceded by any communication with actual graduate programs on campus as to how (un)realistic a 5-year TTD expectation was, or with any practical strategies for lowering TTD. Of course, I believe this explanation for raising graduate tuition was disingenuous, but nonetheless, it was the explanation that was offered.

Now add to all this that Prestigious University was located in one of the highest cost-of-living regions in the country, so that by my 5th year I had already incurred a fair amount of credit card debt to offset the shortcomings of the modest stipend provided by PU.

It was in my 6th year that I began to realize how smart it would be to take advantage of the student loan rates I was eligible for, in order to pay off my credit card debt. So that was where it started. Then, in the following year, all my bids for pre-doctoral funding failed. I had the choice of getting full-time work to support myself, and hence delaying the completion of my dissertation further, or taking out student loans that would allow me to work full-time on the dissertation. That is what I did.

At that point, personal problems and poor financial choices compounded my debt problems, such that it made the most sense to keep borrowing from the government until I could finish the degree and get a job. I’m not going to detail the personal factors that contributed to my debt, since that’s somewhat besides the point of this particular post. And, I did have a couple of external grants during my last few years finishing, but I always took out as much student loan money as they would allow, which seemed necessary to stay afloat.

I’m not really sure what my final student loan debt tally was, it’s a little too painful to look at. It lay somewhere in the vicinity of $90,000 – $110,000. Suffice to say, very high for someone who went to graduate school with “full funding.”

And I am one of the lucky ones. The year that I graduated I got a 1-year sabbatical replacement, and then I got the tenure-track position that I currently hold. I do not make a cushy salary, and a large chunk of my take-home goes to paying off these loans. One can quibble over the details, but it doesn’t take much to see that something is very wrong with this picture. And there are enough stories like mine to suggest that it’s something systemic.

*I don’t mean to imply that I was knowingly mislead regarding time-to-degree. To the contrary, the faculty genuinely believed 5 years to be realistic and attainable. This was mostly an issue of benign neglect. Organizations like the Council of Graduate Schools only began to bring attention to rising time-to-degree and attrition statistics in the early 2000s, that is, right when I was 5 years into my PhD program. Moreover, graduate student funding at Prestigious University was heavily influenced by the needs of the sciences and engineering, where 5 years did represented a realistic TTD.


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