Poverty in academia: the new frontier of an advanced degree

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Talking about money makes everyone uncomfortable.  From the very poor to the very wealthy, money is something we all stay pretty tight lipped about.  Until the last few years.  The new economy has forced all of us (state side and international) to think differently about money. For most of us, having less money means being more cautious about basic purchases (no, a porsche is not a basic purchase) and budgeting tighter and tighter each pay check. Did spending get out of hand earlier?  Yes.  Is this what we should have been doing?  Perhaps.  Did the crashing economy help matters? No. What do we do about it now?  Let’s explore.

I am a victim to those plights as well.  I have spent a great deal of time reading up from the article on the Chronicle to numerous posts from the professor is in, and various other news outlets. My situation is certainly not as dire as others.  Maybe I’m lucky that in this instance, I don’t have a partner, children, or any major medical ailments.  It’s just me and that’s fine. I did land a job upon completion of my advanced degree. I’m very thankful for that.  Is it what I wanted to make money wise?  No, but it’s a job.  I’ll get there. I was doing ok, making my bill payments each month, having enough left over for groceries, and living very strictly but my needs were being met.

Then my loan consolidation happened.  I chose to consolidate because the paperwork said it would help me get a better interest rate, I would only make one payment a month instead of who knows how many, and I could get a more manageable payment schedule this way and by doing an ‘income based’ plan, meaning my payment is based off my tax return from the previous year.  I took all of this advice, filled out all of the paperwork, and sent it back. I’m going to be proud on blog and say this: I cannot afford the payment that is over  1/3 of my take home pay after taxes and insurance. Yes, I have other expenses. Rent, utilities, car, insurance, credit cards, etc….I know, the credit card debt is my responsibility, just like my loans.  I invested in my education and for earning my degree have been rewarded with 6.8% interest and an almost $900/mo. payment which I cannot make.  Can I pay something? Yes. Will I? Absolutely. Do I think I should have bought another house instead?  YEP. 😀

All joking aside, this is a heavy burden for anyone and while we could argue that college is not for everyone (trust me, it’s not), I invested in my education to better myself.  I will still be paying off this loan balance for years to come. I will be paying it off (probably) when my currently unborn children head off to college if they choose to seek higher education.  I am not alone in this and NPR ran a unique piece that resonated because I think it’s what my generation and the generation behind me will soon be facing as the new normal.  Increased pressure to perform, go to college, earn a degree, and strap yourself with mounting debt at the age of 18 seems to be the standard and it shouldn’t be. Why do these universities charge so much?  Trust me, it’s not to pay these perceived “giant” salaries the faculty are earning.  Most beginning faculty fall into my “box” and face similar struggles.  In a non-scientific poll of my colleagues who completed PhD’s and have debt, we all felt the same pinch and have managed it in different ways.

Here’s the bottom line.  I’m not in poverty but I feel like I am.  Based off of national averages, I’m doing fine but I feel terrible.  Some critics will say ” it’s your own fault, you didn’t need this degree” but in my mind, becoming a college professor was something I always dreamed of and getting a phd was one of the major ways to get closer to that dream.  Reading the headlines each day and hearing that Congress is ‘fighting’ about raising interest rates has me appalled.  6.8% isn’t enough?  They want to double it???  Good grief! This generation will NEVER get out from debt based off of educational choices that (in theory) is supposed to help them get ahead in life.

Every phd’s situation is different. You may have read this and thought, ‘what a whiny baby’ or maybe you thought, ‘this sounds like me.’ I don’t think anyone with a phd is asking for a free ride but some sensitivity to the fact that our field is flailing right now (even our whole economy still) and it’s going to take time to bounce back in order for us to be able to afford the cost of living.  I applaud and am green with envy those folks who have been able to complete any degree with no debt.  I wish I was one of those people.  I know that if I was, I would have other worries in life, but it’s also hard to talk to people (like the one I live with) about these things because then you receive feedback that ‘you complain too much, what’s the big deal?’ from them. It’s frustrating.

Would total loan forgiveness solve these problems facing our generation and ones to come?  No.  It would help but it’s the easy answer.  Our system has problems that root deeply from decades of greed, poor leadership, and perceived rising costs.  Is capping tuition the answer?  Perhaps one of many.  Is ending the big push for college the answer.  Yes, it can help.  Encouraging students to seek vocational training, trade apprenticeships, or other hands-on professions would help our workforce immensely.  There are 1,000 solutions but no answers it seems in this day and age.

As a new faculty, I applaud folks who have landed TT jobs, gotten the package and salary to reflect their degree and the value of it, and are able to balance their budget.  I hope to be one of those people some day, but until then, I will continue to plan carefully because I was taught to do so, try and save for emergencies (not a porsche), and work to repay my debt to society for earning my education.

How are you managing the student loan issue? How will you advise your students, family members, and own children about the debt they may have to assume to earn their college education?  Would you be bold enough to tell them that college isn’t for everyone?

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2 thoughts on “Poverty in academia: the new frontier of an advanced degree

  1. pickyveg says:

    I’m guessing you’ve already found this, but the Income-Dependent Repayment program sets up a payment that is about 14% of your take-home. If you make 120 payments, while working in a non-profit or as a teacher, the capital will be forgiven.

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