This is an invited post by Jeremy Trombley as part of the Anthropologies (#20) Student Debt issue. Trombley is a PhD student at the University of Maryland studying environmental anthropology. His dissertation research focuses on the use of computational environmental modeling to understand and predict the effects of environmental management practices on the Chesapeake Bay. In addition he has done research on coal power in western Kansas, traditional cultural properties (TCPs) in rural Nevada, and aquatic invasive species (AIS) on the Eastern Shore. He blogs at Struggle Forever!
Sometimes I feel as though I’ve been swindled. Not by anyone in particular but by an institution that is relentlessly trying to prop itself up despite its progressive decline. That institution is the academy – once a public good devoted to the free production of critical knowledge, it has become in the last few decades a corporatized factory for the production of capitalist consumers and wage slaves. More than that, it has become itself a product for consumption where what’s for sale is the facsimile of intellectual freedom and integrity. Like so many extravagant island resorts, universities offer manicured landscapes, leisure activities, freedom from the wage clock – all for a price and all safely sectioned off from the harsh realities outside. But the price is going up, and students – the consumers of this image world that they are being sold – are taking on increasing amounts of debt to pay it. What’s more, they’re told this is “good debt” – like buying a house, right? Remember when owning a home was the “American Dream” – a symbol of financial security? Now that bubble has burst – the academic bubble, I believe, is not far behind it.
Bubbles happen when a sector of the economy becomes delusional – when those who take part in it believe it to be free from the economic rules upon which our world is constructed. Academia has become such a delusion. But bubbles are not accidents – they are an inevitable part of a system that seeks the maximization of profit as the ultimate value. Speculators dive in, drawn by promises of wealth and freedom only to be crushed by the inevitable collapse of the delusional space. The speculators are consumers themselves, buying into a vision sold to them by the real beneficiaries – the banks, insurance companies, and, in the case of academia, the Universities. In this case, the speculator-consumers are the students – drawn in by the lure of “good debt”, stipends, the image of freedom and intellectual engagement, and the promise of a good job when it’s all over.
The academic bubble is a particularly tricky one for several reasons. First, it is housed within institutions that are ostensibly public. The corporatization of the University has proceeded as a vampyric draining of public resources, replacing them with the spirit of capital accumulation. Thus the monster maintains an outwardly appealing form. Second, what’s being consumed is not a product or even a lifestyle, but a livelihood. Students enter with the intent of finding a career path, and often get sucked in to a long-term commitment because they find upon graduating that they can’t do anything with their degree and need another degree to supplement it. Third, this isn’t one large bubble waiting to burst. It’s more like putting bubble bath in a hot tub. What you get are thousands of bubbles piling on top of one another moving up and up and then outward. The result is not one all-encompassing burst, but thousands of tiny bursts as students move out into the world and find themselves unable to find jobs, and unable to pay their debts.
I am not as bad off as some – it could be worse. My parents have always made a reasonable living, but never enough to set aside a college fund for my brother and me. I worked for five years as a child care assistant before going back to undergrad. In order to make that transition, I had to take out a private loan because I earned too much (about $25k) the year before to qualify for financial assistance, but too little to have a significant savings. I spent two years at a community college, paid for by a combination of that loan and federal and state grants. When I switched to the University, I began taking out federal loans to cover my cost of school (I was out of state, so tuition was high for the first year) and living. I worked, but didn’t earn enough to live. I received one small scholarship thanks to a helpful professor at the University, but mostly I paid for my BA through loans. For my Master’s degree I was offered one year of funding, and then was lucky enough to get the second year covered by a grant that my professor was working on. Neither of these covered the cost of summer courses that I was required to take, so I took out more loans to pay for those. Furthermore, the stipend in our department is roughly $16,000 per year (for a 9.5 month GAship – the 12 month GAships are hard to come by), which is not nearly enough to live on in the DC metro area. As an example, I pay half of my income in rent for a small room in a shared house; food, bills, and other common expenses quickly eat up the rest of my paycheck. If it weren’t for loans and the extra work I do on the side, I wouldn’t be able to make it, and I don’t lead an extravagant life by any means.
Currently my student loan debt is in the five-figure range, but edging close to six. In addition, I have a few thousand in credit card debt (the result of a couple of unexpected expenses, including one medical issue that wasn’t covered by my insurance). I dread the day I have to begin paying those loans off – in part because I’m not sure I’ll have a job with the income to make the payments and still have enough to live on. Frankly, I’m terrified, and I can only hope that things work out when the time comes.
Did I make the wrong choice? Should I have stopped at the BA or Master’s degree? I don’t think so. I believe strongly that everyone should have access to the education that they want. I knew from the moment I returned to college that I was going to pursue a PhD, and I don’t regret that choice at all in spite of my accruing debt. Maybe I should have taken time off in between degrees to work and achieve some kind of financial stability. Perhaps, but there’s no reason to think that I would have found that stability in the current economic market, so it might have been years before I was able to pursue my intended career. I certainly could have tried other routes and made better financial decisions. However, if the result of these discussions about academic debt is merely to blame the students for not making the right choices, then something is seriously wrong. If we condemn students for going to grad school when they can’t afford it, then the only people who will go to grad school and get PhDs are those who can. This will only exacerbate the inequalities that have become increasingly apparent in our current economic system (see here for an interesting breakdown of the inequalities of academic debt). Instead, I think we have to turn our attention to the much larger (and much more difficult) issues that make students go into debt, that encourage departments to take on more students than they can fund, and that make finding adequate employment on graduation difficult.
I don’t pretend to understand all of what’s going on, but here are some of my own observations. First, there are probably too many students going into graduate school. They simply cannot all be funded, but who gets in shouldn’t come down to those who can afford it – graduate school and funding should be available to anyone who wants to pursue an academic career. However, I think that many of the students would be content to stop at the BA or Master’s and pursue other careers, but instead they go into and remain in graduate school beyond what they feel necessary in part because they don’t feel like they can get jobs with anything but a PhD. They graduate from undergrad and find that they have no choice – the only way to get a decent job with the degree that they have is to get another degree. Second, I think departments feel compelled to accept these students (those who meet the academic qualifications, at any rate) because of a moral obligation to provide students with education, but also because they themselves are under economic pressure to demonstrate their value to the universities. Taking on graduate students – funded or not – is one way to do this. Regardless of the motivation, finding funding for the students that they accept should be a top priority for every department. Finally, all of this takes place within an economic system in which the universities themselves are increasingly driven by corporate, profit maximizing logic (in spite of the fact that many of them are not for profit institutions).
What are the solutions? I’m not an expert on this issue – but I have a few ideas. First, we can (as my friend Michael says) militantly defend the university as a public institution whose benefit is more than just the production of laborers who fit an economically prescribed niche (e.g. pushing engineering, computer science, business, etc. as the only worthwhile disciplines, the only ones students should consider taking on debt to pursue) – an institution that produces a critically informed public, which benefits everyone. Higher education should be freely available to everyone who wants or needs it. That would address some of the larger economic issues that underlie the debt bubble. Second, we can work on making it easier for people with BAs and MAs in anthropology to find economically stable jobs. This would make it easier for people to take time off and achieve some degree of financial stability before entering graduate school, and would also give those students who don’t want or need to attend graduate school an outlet to pursue another kind of career – not because they can’t afford it, but because they’re not interested in becoming academics. Finally, we can focus on giving students at every level the tools they need to be successful in the current economic system (this is a weak solution since it plays into the flawed economics that cause this mess, but it is still a viable option and should be considered). That means less focus on teaching exotic topics and more on teaching useful and marketable skills. To me that means more methods education at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Ethnographic methods are highly sought after right now despite the decline of interest in anthropology and ethnographic subject matter, and teaching them will help students find the jobs that will give them a solid start in life after college.
I know that I haven’t been swindled. I made my choices, I knew what I was getting into (though not necessarily the extent or intensity of the problems), and I’m glad that I’m working towards the PhD that I always wanted. I hope that someday I will come out of school, find a decent job teaching and doing research, and that I will be able to gradually pay off my debt while living a reasonable lifestyle. That’s all part of what I signed on for. Still, I think many students come into and remain in graduate school unnecessarily and without full recognition of the costs they might face. We all need to work on making it easier for people to pursue the education that they want without accruing massive debt. Deflating this academic bubble will make all of us better off in the end.