Saturday, September 22, 2012

Generation Debt

While my ENG 112 students begin reading Jean Kwok's novel Girl in Translation this week, my Monday/Wednesday sections of ENG 100 will be discussing an excerpt from Anya Kamenetz's book Generation Debt. (My Tuesday night section discussed this last week.) Here is a video of Kamenetz discussing student debt on PBS:

My students are typically divided on the issue of whether or not taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans is a good bet. Some are "lucky" in the sense that the government pays their tuition because of their military service. ("Lucky" is not the right word -- they have certainly earned this benefit.) Others have family members helping them along. Others are paying their own way, and would rather take a decade to get their degree--taking only the classes they can afford to pay for up front--than borrow money from the federal government or private banks. Still others do take loans, and are anticipating taking more loans when they move on to more expensive schools.

I have mixed feelings on this issue. I was very lucky when I originally applied for college: I received a scholarship from Bard (a very expensive, private liberal arts school) that allowed me to attend for the same tuition charged at state schools. This comparatively small bill was covered by federal loans and some help from my parents. When I first enrolled in graduate school, I could no longer lean on my parents for help, so I took out more loans until I was able to get a teaching assistantship. My combined graduate and undergraduate loans are pretty staggering--despite the scholarships and funding I received along the way. I will be paying these loans back for decades.

Do I regret taking on this amount of debt? No--I don't. I can't imagine being who I am without my years at Bard, and I can't imagine landing the job I have without my graduate degree. Student loans made that possible. Yet, at the same time, I can't say for sure that I would make the same decisions if I had it to do all over again. I certainly would NOT advise someone in a similar position to do what I did. I acted with a kind of financial recklessness, and just happened to get lucky. Many people who come out of the same PhD program I came out of (and others similar to it) struggle for years to find full-time employment.

It's scary to think how so many young people make financial decisions that may impact their whole lives at a time when they have little to no financial experience and may be receiving misinformed or misguided advice from parents or institutions. My hope is that public colleges and universities will be able to win more support from government and renew their commitment to making higher education accessible, by keeping tuition fees reasonable and offering more grants and scholarships to more students. This should be a much higher priority than competing with private colleges for prestige.

No comments: