Consuming the Academic Bubble

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.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

16 thoughts on “Consuming the Academic Bubble

  1. I’m sympathetic but there are other options, some of them horrid.
    Everyso often someone suggests limiting the number of law students, MBAs, what-have-you because at the time of their graduation, there aren’t enough jobs. It is more likely that the people already in the profession will close the door to newbies, or add more BS (bovine crap) qualifications (bar, xtra certs), they have the power to do so.
    With my first grad degree, I realized that to get the job I wanted in academia, I would have to get my PhD from a handful of schools that supplied professors for colleges and universities. Sadly the grad school I was attending was not one of the handful. Secondly, some departments are crap at getting you employed if their sole focus is academia and not professional development.
    I believe the future will provide low cost education to all, however, the sheepskin, the certifications, the access to certain professionals and experiences will cost you.

  2. Not sure why you insist that you haven’t been swindled. You made your choices, sure, and are culpable, but that does not exonerate the university from its part in both admitting too many grad students, not offering enough financial aid, etc. Just because I might have stopped myself from being taken when buying a used car, doesn’t mean the person selling the clunker wasn’t out to take me. Ethics is very rarely a one way street.

  3. I’m not sure of your age, but I’m in the middle. I only recently got my associates degree and paid w/o a loan. I started my working career in printing, a job that doesn’t need college, but requires work knowledge. I was earning 45M @ age 23, no college, no loans. I do not understand AT ALL how college folks think that because you’ve gotten a degree (in whatever) that it also comes with a job! Yes, you are more educated, but how does this create job openings? And in this economy?? You are going to be put at the end of the list as a new graduate, as there are many more candidates with a degree AND work experience AND willing to take less an hour as their loans have been paid off. I don’t agree that everyone should have access to education, as there would be folks defaulting on their loans all over and us taxpayers would need to pick-up the pieces. I think if you start at the bottom rung of the ladder in the career you want and experience all the work a company must do to complete the work, you’ll be farther ahead than just going to school and having a bunch of letters after your name.

  4. This is why I’m not getting a Master’s degree, and why I will only accept a funded graduate school position (when I eventually apply, that is). I am already in debt from undergrad and I will. not. put myself in any more. I’m really worried about college becoming completely unavailable for most young people in the coming decades.

    As for solutions… lower requirements for entry-level jobs would be a start. I shouldn’t need a Master’s degree to do something that a smart, capable high school graduate could do easily with minimal training. The barriers, written and unspoken, are unbelievable.

  5. Very nicely written!
    Nearly 20 years ago now, wrapped securely in my rented, velvet striped Master’s cloak the Ivy covered president commenced “you have now earned all of the Rights and Privileges hereby conferred upon you by this Institution.” CORPORATION. I knew full well that my specialized area of the Humanities was going to be complicated to place in the work-a-day world yet I had some fairly specific ends in site. AND, I believed in the nobility of the university; I believed those aforementioned Rights and Privileges were tangible, applicable, and a worthy investment. I cherish the far reaching truly Liberal Education that I have. I am more than a little embittered by the unemployment which has followed. I have had a few great alternative jobs in gardening and carpentry; I’ve had also quite a few really lousy mindless and laboring jobs simply for cash.

    The fortunes being made by University Corporations are criminal. The hawking of “rights and privileges” cloaked in prestige and hopeful promise is snake oil. And, the Federal Government Sallie Mae loan debt collection is a complicit, profiteering shark.

    The really delicious irony comes a dozen or more times a year in the university Alum letters begging for still more money.

    I really wish I had some more positive or productive input. The tipping point has past, some profound changes-solutions need be found. The Costs of Education, hmm. Again, very well written, thoughtful posts.

  6. I respect your opinion and really enjoyed reading your post, but I think that there is one factor you have ignored, and that is the power of the students themselves. It’s really up to the students to determine what they make of the university they are at, whether it’s expensive or not. Although, there is a definite corporate aspect to college, there is also the fact that many colleges are offering more and more scholarships. On top of all this, even though it feels like you are paying tons of money for a degree, that degree will most likely be your ticket to a job later in life, which I personally believe justifies all this to some extent. So, yes it is expensive, but it’s also important to understand a lot of that expense goes to helping the students both now and later in life. All in all, fantastic article.

  7. I myself have a masters and I feel under qualified for several jobs in my field and over qualified for several others. I am planning to continue with my PhD although I’m questioning my own choice…Is it worth the debt? Why does academia is a horrible struggle? Great post.

  8. I so agree with this! Education is supposed to be a solution. A way to make someone’s life better as a degree supposedly opens doors to jobs and financial stability. What’s depressing is instead of achieving that goal, the opposite actually happens. Instead of financial stability, what a person gets is a pile of debts or loans. Others can’t take that much debt because they had to support their families etc and decide to not pursue a degree anymore and just find any work that’ll take them. How are we supposed to get out of our financially challenged situations when the solution (getting a higher education) becomes a problem itself?

  9. This beautifully written. I have been on the fence about continuing my education for so many of the reasons you mentioned. I love what you said about higher education being accessible to everyone. I believe this would solve so many issues.

  10. Thanks you, I learned a lot in this. I currently transferring from a community school into a 4 year, with the intention of going to grad school eventually. I just learned a lot about the process and issues from this blog, and the comments.

  11. The university business model is broken. The state university where I live had a severe budget cut in 1987, and has followed that with more budget cuts every two years or so since then. There has been much talk about “cutting to the bone” each time. Degrees have been eliminated, departments have disappeared. Yet tuition has skyrocketed year after year after year. Over this same time period, corporate America has cut, restructured, re-organized, and has emerged as hugely profitable and swimming in cash. Companies like Apple and GE have billions just sitting in the bank. What does this tell us?

    Universities have not embraced the economies provided by the internet. Companies with far flung subsidiaries operate seamlessly, pooling all their talent via interconnected video and other communication formats. A Porsche mechanic in Linz who encounters a problem can go online, query Porsche mechanics all over the world and get the solution from a mechanic way across the world who has encountered the problem previously. Multiply that by thousands of incidents, and real savings emerge.

    Universities have a stranglehold on granting degrees, and they don’t have to operate efficiently. They just have to cut budgets to meet available funding, and when there is too much personnel pain, they raise tuition. Porsche, and other businesses, can’t operate that way. Universities, however, will be able to operate that way until they are no longer the bottleneck on degrees.

    There is an opportunity here for those who can offer alternative training that will result in jobs, and as more and more prospective university students decline to go deeply into debt for a university degree and opt instead for a job-training program, the extent of the broken university economic model will be revealed – as it already is by the gathering discontent of those struggling under obese amounts of student debt.

  12. As a law student, I’m interested in this subject. I believe the legal education is going through exactly the same bubble as traditional academia is. I’m thankful that I won’t have to worry about debt really (going to a strong public school, grants, some personal circumstances) but I can’t say the same for most of my colleagues. There are 200 law schools in the US. That number badly needs to be cut in half, at least, but the ABA is doing absolutely nothing to solve the problem. They’re corrupt bastards who are cheating every law student in the country.

  13. I disagree. We are being swindled. The very fact that you didn’t know the extent of the problems points to manipulation, and I have no qualms calling out the current educational system for what it is: exploitation.

  14. Thoughtful post, appreciated your sincerity. There is not enough space to fully elaborate on this topic, so here are a few “points” from my experience:
    – Universities: definitely taking on the feel of corporations (i.e. make more money by adding hyper-specialized degrees, constantly increasing tuition, extending timeframes/requirements to achieve degrees)
    – preparing students with marketable skills? the market seems to change every few years, so how can Univs stay current?
    – often too much focus on the didactic vs the practical (in a real-world, working sense)
    – key to seeking to provide “free” or “accessible” education for all members of society in hopes to better all society = somehow get filthy rich corporations to re-invest in society (with no strings attached) by providing the means (i.e. spare some change so that society can benefit overall)
    Best of luck to you in your pursuits!!!!

  15. What I realized in the process of getting ready for grad school clear through the end is basically that I wanted to buy status and to have a seat at the master’s table. It seemed like everyone had one. I now work in a job that pays well in marketing and events, but the person training me did not do higher education and she is far better at the job than I will be, truly.

    I highly advise any people in their teens or 20s to pay as they go. I think most people need the structure of higher education in order to vet, refine, and hone in on knowledge but it sets you up for a disconnect with a lot of commerce on the ground. If you do wish to buy status, the best thing to do is enter through the back door – community college, transfer scholarships, and then if you go beyond the BA, you have to work 1-2 years first before justifying another round of education. Then go for the meeting point of the university with the best price, highest global ranking. If I had boundless energy and patience, I would have learned agriculture and small construction because that is where the future is. -‘tarotworldtour’

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