The following is another installment for the Anthropologies/Savage Minds issue on Student Debt.
Well, it’s that time of year when prospective grad students around the country are anxiously pacing around their mailboxes waiting for responses from all the PhD programs they applied to. Many are wondering who accepted them, who rejected them, and, of course, if they got funding. That’s the big question. Getting a full-funding offer is the highest mark of acceptance and application success. It’s like getting the golden seal of academic and departmental approval. It means you’re in.
Getting accepted without a funding offer is a not-so-wonderful middle ground. Like getting a happy-face sticker that says “Great Job!” when you really needed a paycheck. It feels sort of like acceptance, but there’s something hollow about it. A lot of people decide to enter PhD programs without funding, thinking that at least it gets them in the door. If they happen to have piles of extra money on hand, or family support, or a full-time job, or maybe even a partner who is working, it might be a reasonable choice. Might being a key word there. But many people simply don’t have access to those kinds of financial resources. In these post-economic crash, disintegration-of-the-university-as-we-knew-it times, I think more students need to seriously reconsider entering PhD programs without full funding. Why? Because it doesn’t make any sense to go into debt trying to get a PhD in anthropology (let alone plenty of other disciplines). Sarah Kendzior said it best on twitter not too long ago:
Do not do a PhD program unless you are guaranteed full funding for every year. Use the system, don't let it use you.
— Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) January 13, 2014
If the funding isn’t there, don’t do it!* Don’t get used. Look at your options. If you have been “accepted,” but without funding, think long and hard about the decision. Pay close attention to the numbers of people in debt, the academic job market (a PhD is geared toward producing academics, after all), and other factors like rent and cost of living. More importantly, think about how you are going to cover your costs. If you’re thinking that student loans are a good option, think again. Take the time to read up about student loans, and why accepting them might be a very, very bad idea. One glaring issue is a lack of basic consumer protections for borrowers:
Student debt is treated more harshly than any other type of debt in America. Unlike your mortgage, business, credit card or even gambling debts, student loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy and there is no statute of limitations on the collections of student loan debt. As a result, more than 40 Million Americans are buried under approximately $1.2 Trillion worth of student debt and more than 7 Million of those people have defaulted on their student loans, causing major financial hardships from which there is almost no escape.
Here’s what the lack of consumer protections means: You can go out and spend $50,000 on credit cards and file for bankruptcy. You can run a massive, corrupt corporation like Enron and file for bankruptcy. You can buy a house that you can’t afford and you still have consumer protections. You can even gamble away thousands of dollars and still get those protections. But if you go to school and amass thousands of dollars in debt, no dice. You are stuck with those loans, thanks in part to the wonderful lobbyists (like folks from Sallie Mae) who worked hard to do away with consumer protections:
Sallie Mae’s lobbying efforts were recently described by The New York Times as “aggressive”i spending $37,490,000 on lobbying from 1998 to 2012.ii This year, Sallie Mae has already spent $1,230,000 on federal lobbying, working against several consumer protection bills, including the Private Student Loan Bankruptcy Fairness Act of 2013 and Fairness for Struggling Students Act of 2013.iii Both pieces of legislation call for increased regulation of private banks with a history of bad lending practices.
Even if you do get a full-funding offer, take a close look at the numbers. Look at the amount of the stipend, the time expectations coming from the department, and travel expenses related to doing fieldwork (this last one is huge). As Karen Kelsky pointed out with her PhD debt survey a few months back, full-funding often isn’t enough. This is definitely the case in anthropology, which, due to fieldwork requirements, certainly isn’t cheap. One of the issues with fieldwork is that many of your costs back home can’t be covered by fieldwork grants. And trust me, it’s not easy to keep up with your costs while you’re away doing fieldwork, unless you’re some sort of roaming free-spirit without any possessions, connections, bills, or previous obligations. Even students with funding often end up taking out student loans to cover those “extra” expenses. Again, this warrants a deep look into the pluses and minuses of student loans (see above). These are the kinds of things you don’t hear too much about until you’re well into the thick of grad school. Better to know sooner rather than later.
At some point we might want to think about how all of this debt is affecting the actual practice and meaning of anthropology. Think about this: if we’re graduating a flood of students who are deep in debt, what kind of “anthropology” are we really producing in the end, and how does that bode for all of our big talk about “public engagement”? Especially since the students of anthropology are one of the discipline’s primary public audiences. Teaching is, after all, on the front lines of what many refer to as “public anthropology”. It is one way we get the message out into the world. But what message are we sending? What does it mean for anthropology when our institutions are burying a huge percentage of our own in debilitating debt, while the rest of us just stand by and watch?
That’s a discussion for another post. In the meantime, don’t get used. Avoid debt at all costs.
*Note: Some folks might respond to this by saying something like “But if the only people who get PhD’s are those who have the money or resources, then graduate school is going to become little more than an elitist institution for the rich!” My response: It already is. Encouraging more people to go into debt isn’t going to change that.