Thursday, April 19, 2012

Debt or Alive

This week my ENG 100 classes have their final reading assignment--a government report on the state of student loan debt nationally. The report cites some staggering figures. About 2/3 of students who earn a Bachelor's degree take out student loans in order to pay for it, and the average amount of debt per student is roughly $25,000. I went to a rather expensive private liberal arts college for my B.A., but I did not graduate with quite that much debt. This was in large part due to a very generous scholarship the college offered me, which covered about 2/3 of my expenses. In other words, I was lucky--I mean, I worked hard to earn that scholarship, but still, I was lucky.

When I moved onto graduate school, I was not as lucky. For my first three semesters, the only financial aid I received was through federal loans. I needed these loans to cover tuition and living expenses. (I was teaching part-time, but that only brought in about $2,500 per semester.) For the remainder of my program, I was able to obtain funding (a tuition waiver and a modest stipend), but the damage was already done. I'm not going to broadcast the exact figure of how much I owe, but I will say that my monthly student loan payment is higher than my monthly car payment--and odds are, when my car dies some 100,000 miles from now, I'll still be paying back those student loans.

Was the debt worth it? For me, it was. I am currently a tenure-track, college English professor, which is exactly what I want to do with my life. If I hadn't taken out the loan, I probably couldn't have found another way to get here. But for others, I know, who have taken out similar loans, the results have been different. Jobs like mine are not plentiful these days, and many people with PhDs in English can only find part-time (poorly paid) employment, without benefits. It's such a big gamble to take on big-time debt when you're not sure what the job market will look like post-graduation.

I don't have any easy answers to offer my students on this topic, but I hope our discussion will get them thinking--if they're not already--about the challenges and risks that lie ahead as they contemplate where to go after DCCC and how to pay for it. I just hope none of them take out a variable interest rate loan from Citibank to pay for tuition at the University of Phoenix. From what I hear, I think that might be the worst possible decision.

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