These ain’t your dad’s student loans

When I was in my Master’s program (1999-2001), I had a full ride, so my tuition and health insurance were covered, and I got $5000/academic year to be a TA. That still didn’t cover rent, utilities, books, and food. So in addition to my TAship, I took on a 30/hour/week retail job, did well-paid summer internships, and accepted help from my parents. I still racked up a bit of credit card debt. Nothing major, thanks to my parents’ help!

The next year (2002), I started a PhD program, where I was paid $9900/year. And I remember my dad telling me something like “I know how hard it is. I was making only $9000/year when I was in grad school.”

In 1971.

How much was a grad stipend in my discipline in 1971?

In order for my dad’s statement to be even close to equivalent, according to this Inflation Calculator, that would have meant that my PhD program should have been paying me about $40,000. Not quite the same. I was lucky, though. I was partnered up by then with someone working full-time so I could share rent, utilities, food, etc. I didn’t have children yet. And so the student loan (singular) I took on in grad school was cute – something like $1100 during my third year – just to buy a new laptop.

It costs a WHOLE lot more to do grad school today.

Unfortunately, as you know, grad students today face insurmountable student loan debt. As in debt that will trail them through their lives, making it harder, if not impossible, to ever pay it off. Between the barely-discernible recession recovery and the dismantling of higher ed funding that took place during that same time, students now face crazy-high tuition and fees, ever-inflating housing costs, and, when they get out: depressed wages and an ever-compressing job market. Whee!

And yet. Even I was floored by this startling statistic that just came out in a quarterly debt report: that student loan debt is over 1 trillion dollars. ONE TRILLION DOLLARS. Here’s one visual that I found helpful for wrapping my brain around that.

So I’m online reeling from that statistic, I’m reading different economists’ takes on what can be done. There are loads of opinions, naturally, but my key takeaway was that forgiving all student loan debt would do wonders for all sectors of the economy.

Advice Nobody Asked For

I walk away for a few hours, and when I come back to crack open my laptop, in the “news suggested for you” section of my screen is “When you Should Have Your Student Loan Debt Paid Off” op-ed. If Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary is to be believed (uhh…), you *should* pay it off within 10 years, ideally three. This is the kind of crap that makes my blood boil.

Such advice is premised on folks not understanding the magnitude of what millennials (ahem, and Gen Xers) face: 1 – how much education really costs these days. 2 – the wage stagnation that even engineers and attorneys face upon graduation, 3 – that many would be bonkers miserable in a field chosen solely for earnings power, 4- that my state approves on-campus jobs paying BELOW minimum wage, 5- that even bankruptcy can’t save you from your student loans and I’ll just stop here before my fingers start bleeding. Shut up, Kevin O’Leary. Why don’t you toss a bunch of your net worth towards paying off some student loan debts, so folks don’t have to desperately crowd fund their student loan payments?

Life Happens. Yet Student Loan Payments are Relentless

In the past year, I’ve heard several stories of grad students or academics who, through no choice of their own, had to prioritize their health, forcing them to abandon their careers. And sometimes when that happens, you hear cruel advice, like the woman in this Buzzfeed profile who got “I told you so!” about her choice of field. That she shouldn’t have gone into history because she should have known there would be no jobs, and thus, no way to pay student loan bills. (Seriously, READ THAT ARTICLE). She was simply trying to pursue an advanced degree to MAKE HERSELF MORE MARKETABLE and stand out amongst fierce competition. Sigh. I feel terrible for her.

I don’t follow politics – or I try not to – but someone please let me know when candidates start talking solutions to this that could really take hold. You’re allowed to pierce through my self-imposed news bubble to let me know when to start paying attention to proposed solutions that seem to be gaining traction towards becoming a reality.

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