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Number Crunch

2011 April 27
by Jill

I read an article yesterday in N+1 that got me thinking about higher education, and debt, and jobs, and our culture. It’s something I think about quite often, and I know I’m not alone. This is why I decided to write about the topic on the blog, something I normally wouldn’t do. You might think that  a discussion of student loan debt doesn’t fit with literary style, but let me break it down for you: People who love books typically go to college. People who go to college typically must struggle with the cost of that college. People who are struggling with costs and debt are usually forced to make some tough choices when it comes to personal style and shopping. You follow?

Before I dive into the article, here’s where I’m coming from. Like many Americans, I took it as a given that I would go to college after graduating high school. The high costs seemed abstract, like something made up and far away. I would have been able to attend my state school on a full-tuition scholarship, but I opted for my top choice small liberal arts college instead. When you’re 18 and everyone tells you you need a good college degree to get a good job, the thousands of dollars in loans seem like nothing more than a small hurdle, and the prospect of attending a large university with 75% of my high school just wasn’t appealing in the least. Do I regret my decision? Sometimes, especially when I’m making my loan payments each month, but I don’t think I would want to give up my college experience in the long run. After graduating, I moved back home so I could afford my loan payments and figure out my next plan of action. I worked at a job I absolutely loathed because there weren’t many jobs to be had in my home state of RI. Then grad school winked at me like a promising beacon of light. Sure, it was expensive, and I couldn’t quite afford to pay for an apartment in Boston, but that’s what loans are for! Right?

I graduated nearly 3 years ago, with a pretty useless Master’s degree, some really great friends, and a massive pile of debt to add to my already staggering college debt. I’m still learning how to deal with the bills each month, along with my other living expenses, and on a publishing salary, it can be a daily struggle. It IS a daily struggle, even with help from my fiance and a very restricted shopping budget.

My experience is one shared by many, many people. Americans continue to prize higher education despite the growing evidence that job opportunities just aren’t there to justify the price tag. The article sums it up quite well, “The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.” The result? Debt begetting debt, unemployment, overly qualified workers stuck in severely underpaid jobs. The article goes on to make convincing parallels to the housing crisis, saying national student loan debt numbers in the trillions of dollars, the number one cause of debt in America, surpassing credit card debt for the first time ever.

Another interesting argument in the article: why are the costs of  higher education rising at such a drastic rate every single year? “But the rapid growth in tuition is mystifying in value terms; no one could argue convincingly the quality of instruction or the market value of a degree has increased ten-fold in the past four decades (though this hasn’t stopped some from trying). So why would universities raise tuition so high so quickly?” The short answer: “because they can.” It goes on to point out the number of universities that exploit their graduate students, forcing them to teach on barely livable wages while tenured professors continue to do research and publish articles, leaving the brunt of the course work and grading to their teaching assistants. More and more, universities are being run like corporations, with high-powered and well-paid administrations eating up most of the tuition money, enticing more students with new facilities and iPads.

Bottom line: despite the fact that loan debt is quickly becoming an all-encompassing social ill (those with student loan debt can’t even claim bankruptcy to ever escape it), Americans cling to the notion that an education can cure their problems, get them that job, and make all their dreams come true. With this kind of endemic thinking, will we ever beat this cycle? Is education still a worthy investment?

7 Responses Post a comment
  1. Mal permalink
    April 27, 2011

    Amen! I graduated into the worst year of the recession and was fortunate enough to find full-time employment. The only downside was that my full-time job was at Starbucks, and I had to start paying back my loans almost immediately after starting work there.

    At that point, my master’s degree was not just useless, it was actually a hindrance. Companies with pay structures that forced them to pay employees with graduate degrees more would pass me by because I would require an extra $1,000 or $2,000 per year.

    My student loan debt still looms, but it is no longer abstract. It has become a scary fact of my life: I will pay this much money to the loan company every month for the next 25 years. Unless I somehow find a publishing job that pays DRASTICALLY more than the one I have now (doubtful), I will still be paying off student loans when I am sending my own (as yet unborn) children to college. I can only hope that my kids don’t have to end up in the same predicament.

  2. Taylor permalink
    April 27, 2011

    ‘Education’ is sort of a catch-all term. We here all the time that there are jobs available without enough skilled people to do them. The problem is, those jobs are usually for engineers, medical technical professionals, or other such fields that involve science, math and technology (or at the very least a skilled knowledge of how things work.)

    So really what we’re talking about is a glut of degrees available that have no burgeoning approaching employability. Part of the problem is that you can get in a masters in almost anything, without people informing you that the only thing you can really do with it is… teach the same field.

  3. meghan permalink
    April 27, 2011

    i have really mixed feelings about this… i loved college and appreciated it as a chance to learn things i’d never have the chance to again. i didn’t directly correlate going to college with getting a job that would make me lots of money, as i wanted a liberal arts education and did not major in something practical. however, if you asked my parents who paid 50% of my college costs, i think they would have said they expected me to make a *lot* of money when i graduated. AND, i definitely thought i would be able to get a job, even a crappy paying one, when i graduated, and though i didn’t have too much trouble finding a job when i needed one, far too many people are finding out that equation college degree = job is just false.
    the costs of college are horribly, ridiculously inflated, and i would never encourage anyone to graduate with more than let’s say $25,000 in debt at most. thus, if you are making 30k a year, paying your loans is burdensome but not completely crippling. you’d start off with payments of around $200 (i think, based on my own experience taking out grad school loans), and take home about $2000 a month. i think everyone needs to take a step back and base their decision on taking on loans with the likelihood that they’ll be lucky to get a job that pays 30k, rather than 60k or 80k. when you graduate you are also likely to get a job you don’t want if you get one at all, and have to live in a crappy place with a bunch of roommates, not have a car, never have vacation days, and eat beans and rice. jill, i know you went through this yourself and have dealt with it admirably, so i am preaching to the choir. but i wish there was some way we could make that real to kids and their parents who are deciding on colleges. instead of having a stay-over visit with a student in a dorm, kids should have to stay with the average alumni who graduated that year! but of course, colleges are not up-front with that information. they show you the success stories to get you in the door, but i guarantee that out of the 700 classmates we graduated with, the average experience sounded a lot like the above. that is what you get for the $130,000 you pay over 4 years, and that is a best case scenario. so, in my estimation, it is not worth taking on large amounts of debt. knowing that, if my parents had not had the means to pay 50% of my college costs, state school, or perhaps a lesser-ranked private school that would have given me more scholarship money, seem like better options. that is exactly how i plan to help my kids, if i have them, decide on where to go.

  4. Amanda permalink
    April 27, 2011

    This is something we talk about regularly in the education world. Once upon a time, students were ‘tracked’ academically– and some kids simply were never considered “college material.” In the last few decades, tracking has gone away, based on the argument that it pigeon-holed kids and didn’t give them a chance to break out of their track. So, “preparing ALL students for college” then became the ultimate goal. Thus, the market is saturated with debt-ridden college graduates– and even fewer skilled laborers, which brings us to where we are today.

    As an educator, I grapple with this idea almost daily.

  5. April 27, 2011

    I’m dealing with this because my kids are college age. My daughter had a May 1 deadline to commit to a college. She was accepted at some good art schools, including Pratt and the Art Institute of Chicago and after much agonizing has chosen to go to VCU art, which is a Virginia state school, with very cheap tuition. It’s the best public art school in the US and the 4th ranked overall, but I confess I wanted to be able to say I had a child at Chicago or Pratt. But she wants to start her life debt-free, which is sensible, so elitism plays a role in how we chose our schools.

    I went to a private liberal arts college and never got a job that relates to my major and I eventually went back to a cheap public college for a second degree in nursing, and after I started working, I earned back my entire tuition investment in less than six months.

  6. Amy G permalink
    April 27, 2011

    I think about this a lot and often wonder if it’s even worth it to bother saving for your kid’s college anymore, since it’s outrageously expensive, and at my college, at least, people whose parents couldn’t or just didn’t save got a great deal of financial aid, while those whose parents scraped together a fair amount over the years were “penalized” with no aid. So while I know this is probably a bad attitude, it almost seems like a situation where it’s not worth making much of an effort, especially if what you could save up will amount to a drop in the bucket compared with what college will cost in 15-20 years…

  7. Raquel permalink
    April 29, 2011

    This is a great and thoughtful post. I got a decent education in both undergrad and grad school (moreso in undergrad), met some lifelong friends, and achieved a few cool things during my schooling. I was lucky to get both financial and merit-based aid at both institutions, yet I still carry a big chunk of debt that never seems to get smaller, even though I faithfully pay it off every month. At this point, I think my brain (and your brain too, Jill!) is worth like six figures.

    And yet,despite this, every single job I’ve ever had in my life has come through someone I know–whether they gave me a lead, recommended me, or hired me directly themselves. Most of these people I met in an academic setting…. so I find myself wondering if the value of my education wasn’t the things I learned and the diplomas, but rather the situations for networking it gave me. I wish there had been a cheaper way to achieve this.

    I honestly think instead of college, students in America should mimic countries like Germany, which have professional apprenticeship programs. Industries are helped with inexpensive labor; apprentices learn a valuable skill or craft that pretty much guarantees they’ll get hired when they’re done training. Liberal arts degrees are lovely, but not everyone needs one. (And much of what is learned at a liberal arts college–history, literature, philosophy–can be learned, as said in Good Will Hunting, via like $2 in late fees from the public library.) There are more ways to learn than just sitting in a room pontificating abstractly about a centuries-old text. Hands-on learning seems the smarter way to go.

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