Let’s Stop Normalizing Student Debt

Why do academics accept and perpetuate the idea, asks Jessica Estep, that financial ruin should be the norm for humanities Ph.D.s?

February 6, 2018
 
 
iStock/Aleutie

I recently graduated with a Ph.D. in English, adding the doctorate to my collection of liberal arts degrees -- specifically, an M.F.A. in creative writing and a B.A. in English. The same week, I also opened a college fund for the baby I carried across the graduation stage with me, as I was eight months pregnant.

My mother teased me for already worrying about paying for my in utero baby’s higher education. But I opened the account anyway. After all, if the articles on graduate debt are true, many people who graduated alongside me will spend decades paying off student loans for that privilege. I don’t want my child indentured in the same way.

Of course, the only reason I can look toward the next generation is because I graduated debt-free myself. In addition, at 30 years old, I have socked away about $80,000 in my retirement accounts.

I know that such financial security as a newly minted humanities Ph.D. comes off as either shocking or suspicious; I am almost as much in the black as many graduate students are in the red. Unfortunately, my big secret to financial “success” is neither romantic nor replicable: it’s that I got a scholarship for college, then found and held down a well-paying full-time job during my master’s degree, then found and held down a full-time instructor position in English before enrolling simultaneously in a local doctoral program. Aside from some cash my grandfather gave me for books as an undergraduate, I never received any financial support from my family during my education, and my husband was a doctoral student at the same time I was. But I’m not writing this essay to espouse my own grit; plenty of students work full-time or have no family support. The debt crisis in academe is unrelated to anybody’s work ethic. The problem stems from the expectation that earning a doctorate, especially in a “frivolous” field like English, probably means financial hardship or even financial ruin for anyone who isn’t wealthy.

We have come to assume that achieving three degrees -- especially ones from prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Boston Universities, as two of mine are -- indicates one of two things: either familial wealth or crushing debt. I’m often embarrassed to tell people about my degrees because I know they’ll assume I’m up to my eyeballs in loans. When I told an acquaintance recently that I’d just earned a Ph.D., he said, “Congratulations! After all, you earned it -- and you paid for it.”

For him, and for many others, the eliteness of a doctoral degree stems not from the hours spent writing a 200-page dissertation on rhetorical theory but from the assumed financial risk undertaken for that privilege. No longer simply an indicator of intellectual stamina, the Ph.D. is now also a test of how much we are willing to gamble.

Rather than work against this narrative of financial ruin, academics integrate it into the equally strong narrative of passion. Passion for our subject matter can be readily gauged on the barometer of debt. You have $100,000 in student loans? Wow, you must really love literature!

On orientation day for my doctoral program, the graduate director attempted to dissuade the room of aspiring students from graduate study by reminding us of the crushing debt we would likely be taking on. Should we stick around and earn a Ph.D., we were doomed to the itinerant academic life, struggling to afford a mortgage. Only if we couldn’t imagine doing anything else with our lives should we remain in the room, he said. (No one left, for the record.) I know this well-meaning professor was simply trying to give idealistic 23-year-olds a financial reality check, but he was also contributing to the idea that the only people who belong in the academy are those who love it enough to chance total financial devastation.

This narrative may be uncomfortable for middle-class people, but it’s terrifying for smart kids who happen to be low-income. Working two low-wage jobs, my single mother earned less than $13,000 the year I left for college; for me, the idea of ever taking on debt that might exceed her annual earnings was a nonstarter. I was lucky that I got a scholarship or I might have skipped or dropped out of college, despite being at the top of my high school class. I certainly would not have gone to graduate school if I hadn’t been able to fully support myself. I never loved the field of English (or any field) enough to risk going back on food stamps.

While my story seems to be indicative of a robust meritocracy, it’s not. The kinds of opportunities I had are not pervasive. For starters, I don’t know of another creative writing graduate student who simultaneously held down a job at an asset-management company, as I did. You could say perhaps it’s good to terrify low-income kids away from academe to help them avoid the heartache of certain debt. But how can we sit in our seminars discussing diversity and inclusion when we readily acknowledge academe as a minefield for the poor?

Recently, academics and graduate students were up in arms when Congress proposed taxing tuition benefits for graduate students; they worried that this additional financial burden would put graduate study out of reach for anyone except the very wealthy. But that’s already the case. If I didn’t already have a job, I would be in a precarious situation as a new Ph.D. -- eight months pregnant, probably without reliable health insurance, struggling physically to interview for jobs, and either completely dependent on my husband’s income as a postdoc or taking on debt. This scenario, and others like it, are very real for many graduate students. And it’s a catch-22 that the best place to unpack these kinds of antifeminist, neoliberal, class-based dilemmas is a graduate classroom in liberal arts.

I obviously believe strongly in English studies and higher education or I would not have earned my three degrees. I also would not continue teaching English at a college -- a job I am lucky to have and that I love. And I most certainly would not be saving my pennies so that my kid can repeat my path into higher education.

But we need to start openly interrogating the financial narratives undergirding many liberal arts graduate programs. As a first step, discussions about student loan debt should be integrated into courses -- not left as an unspoken taboo. Beyond that first frightening orientation day, the topic was never mentioned again in any of my courses, despite the hours spent scrutinizing feminist and class-based rhetoric and discourses.

And while I recognize that individual professors and departments can do little to dismantle an entire system built on the backs of underpaid (or unpaid) graduate students, we can at least address the issue head-on. Rather than letting students imagine crushing debt as a necessary evil, we should urge them to read closely into this exclusionary narrative and the neoliberal dogmas that led to its creation. We should even encourage them to get mad and mobilize against the rest of us, if they like.

Earning a Ph.D. while also maintaining a measure of financial security should not be a rare juxtaposition. My situation should be the rule, not the exception.

Bio

Jessica Estep is an assistant professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College.

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