Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Higher Profile of Educational Debt

While it's long been a subject of anguished conversations in the grad student lounge, the topic of mounting educational debt and the toll it takes on young adults' earning power hasn't captured the public's attention. Until recently, that is. The New York Times published a story a couple of weeks ago about an NYU grad who has $100,000 in a combination of student loan and private loan debt, all for a BACHELOR's degree in religious and women's studies. Yikes. While this young woman and her family bear a large burden of WTF, the fact that NYU financial aid counselors, who were aware of the debt load, encouraged her to take out a loan through Citibank borders on the criminal. Today's Chronicle of Higher Ed reports that NYU has "discontinued the practice of callling prospective students and their parents to discuss the debt they could incur by attending." Why? Because they claim it didn't make a difference in people's decision making. This might be true, but considering the program lasted a single year, I would say the jury is still out.

Obviously, New York University isn't alone in having these problems. I am up to my eyeballs in debt (if I were this tall) and I attended a public university. As a graduate student, I didn't have financial support from my family, but was fortunate enough to not have any debt from my undergraduate degree. It didn't occur to me to seek financial counseling - taking out loans was just part of the program. I had a few tuition-remitting gigs in my department and then shifted into teaching anatomy. Because the anatomy program had its own graduate students, they did not offer tuition remission to "outsiders", even though anthropologists filled most of the teaching slots. To qualify to teach, I had to carry 6 credit hours. To be able to afford those 6 credit hours, I had to take out loans. I never sat down and did the math until it was too late. As an independent adult, I bear a ton of responsibility for that, but it is troubling that the system has so few off-ramps, and that so few advisors are aware of the student loan hamster wheel. Talking about finances is considered too personal, and debt is so shameful, that we avoid the conversation altogether, but for people entering such an uncertain job market, these enormous debt loads can be a real handicap and we need to start talking about it with our prospective students. In the short term, it may mean that programs only accept students to whom they can offer full financial packages, but in the long term it will require an overhaul of the financial aid system.

The Huffington Post Investigative Fund is teaming with graduate students at Columbia University's Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism to investigate abuses in the student debt industry. You can share your story, and read about other people's struggle with student loan debt.


  1. For people that have a high loan debt to income ratio - check out http://www.ibrinfo.org/. If you qualify for the program you may also be eligible for public loan forgiveness after 10 years of working for an educational institution. See

  2. Thanks for these links, Jason. I blogged a while back about debt forgivess and the NIH Loan Repayment Program as another option for those anthropologists doing relevant research: http://www.lrp.nih.gov/