Graduate Professionalization in the Age of Student Debt

The often unmanageable debt many Ph.D.s accrue necessitates a candid discussion of grad students' finances, training and potential career paths within and outside academe, writes Jennifer Torkelson.

September 29, 2020
 
 
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In January 2013, as I was completing the first chapter of my dissertation and teaching undergraduate French courses in exchange for funding and a modest monthly stipend, the limited in-college deferment period on my private student loan came to an end. I had no choice but to find a way to cover this new payment that amounted to one-quarter of my monthly stipend, despite my already exceedingly tight budget, the restrictions of my grad student employment contract and the dearth of well-paying job prospects for an ABD in the humanities.

Unwilling to abandon my doctoral program, I was able to secure an exception in my grad student employment contract that allowed me to take on additional teaching jobs. But while repaying the private student loan originally taken out to finance my undergraduate studies became much more feasible, finishing my doctorate became much less so.

Teaching full-time, and sometimes more, meant making sacrifices in the pursuit of my Ph.D. In many ways, student debt became an organizing principle in my life, conditioning much of my graduate experience -- including an inability to pay for travel to conferences, the need to work multiple jobs and growing concern about the timely completion of my dissertation. In one academic year, I simultaneously taught French and ESL in four different schools, each with varying administrative requirements and diverse student populations with distinct needs. With progress on my dissertation almost coming to a standstill came feelings of inadequacy and failure. I nevertheless assumed responsibility for my choices and adapted to the exigencies of student loan payments along with the emotional pain and stress that they entailed.

Flash forward to 2019: I finally filed my dissertation and was awarded my Ph.D. in French and critical theory, but I still face decades of federal student loan payments. I, like so many other Ph.D.s in the humanities, hold an adjunct faculty position with little job security. Throughout graduate school, I felt overworked and grossly underpaid, hovering perilously above the poverty line. It seems as though this reality will persist long into my postdoctoral career.

Many other Ph.D. students have shared my experience, and in my conversations with former graduate colleagues in the humanities, I have discovered that what bonds us continues to be an overwhelming sense of exploitation. We’ve often felt that exploitation not only as graduate student instructors but also as borrowers left with few options outside of student loans and credit cards to pay for living expenses and fees not covered by graduate program funding, fee remissions and meager teaching stipends.

According to the ​Center for American Progress and the National Center for Education Statistics​, approximately 40 percent of student loans taken out each year in the United States, or $37 billion, finance graduate and professional degrees. Yet graduate students make up only 15 percent of the total student population in the United States.

How can graduate students be carrying so much of this debt? This counterintuitive disparity becomes clearer when you examine the average debt load of undergraduates upon graduation (around $25,000) compared with that of graduate students. Twenty-five percent of grad students borrow almost $100,000, and 10 percent of grad students borrow more than $150,000. Yet a scandalously small percentage of humanities Ph.D.s land that elusive tenure-track job, and even that, more often than not, is still not lucrative enough to rescue the financially weary Ph.D. from a lifetime of indebtedness and debt servitude.

Despite all our shared experiences and frustrations, and an eagerness to engage in social and political activism, it is difficult for graduate students and humanities scholars as a community to effect change in the student loan system. But the often unmanageable levels of principal debt and capitalized interest that humanities Ph.D.s accrue in pursuit of a degree -- one that may not even ultimately lead to a well-paying, tenure-track job -- necessitate a candid discussion of debt in relation to students' professionalization, training and potential postdoctoral career paths within and outside academe.

Numerous Painful Truths

The Center for American Progress recently released ​a report​ highlighting how rarely graduate student debt is openly discussed, not only among university and faculty administrators but also by the public and federal policy makers. The report brings to light numerous painful truths about graduate student debt -- including high interest rates, potential negative amortization and racial and gender inequity.

It’s time to stop the silence about these truths. The humanities and the modes of critical thinking that these disciplines teach offer distinctive approaches to engaging in the conversations surrounding student debt, social justice and equality. Humanities scholarship and knowledge production foster rigorous critique of existing social structures and economic systems, and they can encourage us to view the financialization of higher education through the lens of nonmonetary values such as community building and civic engagement. Humanistic research also provides the theoretical foundations for examining, understanding and articulating individual and collective human experience, helping us to conceptualize new types of academic and scholarly communities that, even as they generate and share knowledge, also help to articulate collective experiences of indebtedness.

We should view the current debt climate in the United States, then, as integral to the development and sustenance of collegiality and collaborative communities that could engage academic and public stakeholders in conversations addressing graduate student debt and its far-reaching economic, political and social consequences. If we consider that an educated workforce produces higher-quality goods, higher-quality services and reliable expertise, it stands to reason that higher education and graduate studies should produce greater wealth -- rather than driving those who pursue graduate degrees into unsustainable levels of debt. While some fields may be more financially profitable than others, or create technologies that are perhaps more marketable to consumers than humanistic scholarship, it is undeniable that the humanities contribute culturally, philosophically and intellectually to the exploration and understanding of society.

Unfortunately, our present socioeconomic system favors fields that generate immediate profits, marginalizing less profitable ones. This value system, coupled with ballooning student debt, will have long-term consequences on knowledge production and knowledge sharing for our society. Thus, reconsidering debt and indebtedness should significantly also change the way we think about graduate professionalization.

Higher education desperately needs to be more honest during graduate student recruitment about job availability, the competitiveness of the academic job market and debt load. That includes being transparent about hidden costs that are not always openly discussed during the recruitment process, such as paying for rent or the availability of departmental funding directly related to professionalization throughout the academic year and summer -- and how this funding compares with the cost of living.

Will graduate students need to take out federal and private loans or use credit cards in order to make ends meet? Are they permitted by their program to accept additional employment, if need be? Graduate programs should also offer more support, resources and guidance to Ph.D. students who choose to pursue nonacademic careers such as professional research, public- and private-sector grant writing, higher education administration, consulting, academic and nonacademic publishing, community outreach, and international development. These careers can be just as rewarding as and perhaps more viable for humanities Ph.D.s than tenure-track professorships, and some may offer higher salaries that can help Ph.D.s to pay off their student loans more quickly.

Graduate student life is rife with communal solidarities and collaborations that characterize an ideal form of public education, such as reading and writing groups, even when people are in competition with one another. In addition, many graduate students are politically active through labor unions. Graduate students should continue pursuing such communities and communal activities with the support of their departments and respective programs, while trying to extend them to others.

That includes adjunct faculty who face yearly contract renewals contingent on student enrollment, who may not receive essential benefits like health insurance, and who may lack the advocacy and support of labor unions. Adjunct faculty occupy positions of betweenness that often preclude their inclusion in both professorial and graduate student communities, yet they face similar financial and professional struggles and devote themselves to similar scholarly interests. Graduate students must seek to support one another, future graduate students and adjuncts through candor in sharing their lived experiences of indebtedness.

Finally, this almost perpetual state of indebtedness serves as a call to action: graduate student employees have successfully unionized and engaged in collective bargaining actions in both public and private universities across the nation in response to increasing teaching loads, excessive financial burdens, a lack of health-care benefits and limited job prospects. UAW Local 2865, which represents 19,000 student workers, is just one example of many unions that have negotiated more equitable contracts for graduate student employees. According to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions, there are at least 33 graduate student employee unions in the United States alone. To prevent further tuition hikes and mushrooming student debt, this type of labor activism can occur on a much larger scale.

Colleges and universities across the nation have historically figured as the loci for political, cultural and civic activism. That activism has spanned the civil rights and Vietnam War eras to the Occupy movement of 2011 to the present-day protests, demonstrations, strikes, teach-ins and teach-outs aimed at challenging rapidly increasing tuition, rising costs of living and the resulting limitations to the financial accessibility of graduate studies. Strikes over graduate student debt should serve to push for reforms such as merit-based criteria for federal educational grants as opposed to student loans, hard limits on loan amounts for the duration of Ph.D. programs and additional incentives including partial loan forgiveness based on academic performance, scholarly promise and participation in community-based and publicly engaged scholarship.

Meanwhile, current movements in humanistic research should work to facilitate open conversations about the realities of our financial futures and encourage greater communication with prospective grad students, while illustrating the validity and instrumental use value of the humanities.

Bio

Jennifer Torkelson is an independent scholar and freelance writer. She most recently taught as an adjunct lecturer in the English department at Texas Tech University.

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