Understanding the risks and resisting the Kool-Aid: An interview with Karen Kelsky about student debt

This email-based interview with Karen Kelsky is part of the Anthropologies Student Debt Issue (#20).  Kelsky runs The Professor Is In, an academic career consulting business.  She is a former tenured professor and department head with 15 years of experience teaching at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  You can find her on twitter here: @ProfessorIsIn

Ryan Anderson: How serious is the student debt problem?

Karen Kelsky:  NSF data shows us that almost 50% of all Ph.D.s in the Humanities and Social Sciences are finishing with debt. In the Social Sciences, almost 10% of all Ph.D.s are finishing with over $90,000 debt.  Over 13% have $50K-$90K.  So almost a quarter of all Ph.D.s in the Social Sciences have more than $50K of debt just from graduate school alone, not including the debt carried forward from college.

In the Humanities, while only 6.8% have debt above $90K, almost 13% have $50K-$90K debt, and a whopping 33.2% have debt of $10K-$50K.  Again, these figures do not include undergraduate debt, which is usually higher than grad school debt, since so many Ph.D. programs carry some form of funding.

I’m using NSF data here because it’s “scientific” and harder to deny than the entries on my informal and unscientific Ph.D. Debt Survey.  But the Survey, an open source Googledoc spreadsheet that is now well over 2200 entries (and still open to more!) gives the human stories behind these numbers.

What the stories tell us unmistakably is that so-called “full funding” packages are simply inadequate to support the actual expenses of adult lives in most cases, especially in major cities, or where the Ph.D. student has dependents, or an ongoing health issue.  Funding is also inadequate because if generally doesn’t cover student fees (often $1000 annually nowadays), nor is it adequate to cover summer expenses or the expenses associated with essential professionalization, such as travel for research and conferences.

What the stories of the Ph.D. Debt Survey show most clearly is that many of those who finish without debt draw on family resources–either an inheritance, parental contribution, or a working spouse.  Those without such resources are at a grave disadvantage.  Advanced degrees are once again becoming a perquisite of the upper classes.

RA: What’s your basic advice for anyone looking to start a PhD program these days?  Is it worth it to take out loans to finance a PhD?

KK:  This is the advice that I keep in a file as a boilerplate response to all of those who write asking me whether they should do a Ph.D. in the humanities of social sciences:

I generally advise caution about applying to phd programs. Make sure you are fully funded, and that the so-called ‘full funding package’ is actually adequate for your real-life living expenses in the location of the program.  Go only to an elite or high ranking program, and take on absolutely no debt to do the entire program start to finish.  If all those are possible and you are under 40, then it’s not a bad choice.  While there, firmly strategize for the job market from your first year, by reading my column, Graduate School Is a Means to a Job, and doing what it says.

I elaborate on this in my blog post, “Should You Go To Graduate School?

The Ph.D. in the Humanities or Social Sciences is an extremely bad financial decision for many people at this point in time, certainly for those without a working spouse or family wealth. The reason is not simply the inadequacy of most full funding packages, which have not even remotely kept place with rising costs of living, but that the years in the program are — or should be — a person’s prime earning years when they could otherwise be earning a full-time income,  paying into social security, perhaps accruing the funds to buy a first house, and otherwise laying the financial foundation for later years.  All of those things are out of the question for most Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences (as opposed to Engineering, the hard sciences, etc.).  So the financial repercussions of the decision do not stop at the years of “grad student lifestyle” [ramen noodles, etc.] in the program, which may seem like a reasonable and even appealing sacrifice when you’re in your twenties. Rather they extend outward into a person’s thirties or forties and beyond, when the stakes become urgent of having massive debt, no job, no security, and no financial cushion.

RA: When the subjects of student debt and the bad job market come up, one response I hear going around is a version of “Well, everything’s fine in my department, so I don’t see the problem.”  What’s your take on this kind of response to the situation?

KK:  Denial is not just a river in Egypt.  Graduate students seem determined to willingly delude themselves about the neoliberal financial foundation of graduate education; I’ve found that they are the most deeply invested in the myths of the academic cult.  Then they finish their programs and hit the job market.  The job market reveals the total insupportability of the entire system.  But until graduate students confront the job market, they often remain in a state of hostile denial to any discussion of the financial repercussions of graduate school.  They are of course usually encouraged in this by complacent and out of touch tenured faculty, who continue to push canards like “the best people always find jobs,” or “just focus on your dissertation and it will all work out.”

RA: A lot of the commentary about student debt tends to focus on how individuals manage their personal finances.  Has student debt gotten so out of control because student borrowers are being irresponsible with money?

KK:   Look at the stories in the spreadsheet and you won’t see anyone who was gambling away their rent money or traveling to Aruba.  Stipends of $15-$18,000 a year are simply not enough to cover modest and frugal expenses.   A stipend of $15,000 range yields an income of $1250 a month.  It is not a stretch to imagine a modest budget (rent: $500, gas: $100, food: $300, utilities: $200, books and research: $200, misc: $200 = $1500) that immediately exceeds this, and note that this does not include car insurance or health care co-pays, let alone any unexpected expenses.

RA: In your view, what are the key driving forces behind all of this debt?  What it is about our current educational system that has contributed to this problem?

KK:  It can be traced to the defunding of higher education, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, and the shifting of money away from the educational mission and toward ancillary expenses like athletics and administration.  “Full funding” stipends would average something like $30,000 or more if they were keeping pace with actual rising costs of living (note the new Johns Hopkins plans to reduce graduate admissions but support those admitted with $30K stipends).  In the neoliberal university, however, that is organized around an ethos of permanent scarcity, cost-cutting, and downsizing (except in the ranks of upper administration and athletics), the funds for this are nowhere to be seen.

RA: What’s your take on groups like Strike Debt?  Is the solution going to be some sort of widespread debt cancellation?

KK:  Thomas Frank has an amazing piece from 2012 in Harper’s, called the “Price of Admission.”  You can find it here.  He quotes from anthropologist David Graeber’s pathbreaking book: Debt: the First 5000 Years.  He talks about the effectiveness of debt in turning young people into “profit-maximizing machines.”  Here’s a longer quote:

“Without indebtedness to sharpen the point of the stick (and make the carrot seem that much juicier), students will just sit around in their quadrangles as they always have, wallowing in pointless disciplines and tossing frisbees.

Massive indebtedness changes a person, maybe even more than a college education does, and it’s reasonable to suspect that the politicos who have allowed the tuition disaster to take its course know this. To saddle young people with enormous, inescapable debt— total student debt is now more than one trillion dollars—is ultimately to transform them into profit-maximizing machines. I mean, working as a schoolteacher or an editorial assistant at a publishing house isn’t going to help you chip away at that forty grand you owe. You can’t get out of it by bankruptcy, either. And our political leaders, lost in a fantasy of punitive individualism, certainly won’t propose the bailout measures they could take to rescue the young from the crushing burden.”

I do support the work of Strike Debt.  But in my work I am more directly concerned with warning individuals not to go to graduate school at all if it entails any debt.  Graduate school in the humanities is not worth mortgaging your future over.  Yes, it’s unjust that this career option was available (and not financially ruinous) to previous generations, and I hope it will be again. But for those who contemplate graduate school right now—don’t allow the fantasy of the ivory tower to blind you to the reality of the neoliberal economy of higher ed: stagnant stipends/wages and systemic unemployment result in the bank owning your future.

RA: What are the solutions?  What kinds of changes do we need to make to truly address this student debt problem?

KK:  Again, I’m not a macro-economic thinker (or an economist of any stripe!).  I am not qualified to propose institutional solutions to the scandal and tragedy of 1 trillion dollars of student debt.  I just want everyone who is in, or contemplating entering, a graduate program in the humanities and social sciences to understand the risks, and to resist the Kool-Aid poured out by most tenured members of the academic cult that the life of the mind somehow exists outside of the real economy.


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.