Graduate Students

A Graduate Student With $88,000 in Student Loans Speaks Out About College Debt

Monica Johnson

Monica Johnson, a 35-year-old graduate student at Hunter College, is writing a graphic novel about student debt. Her protagonist, inspired by her own experience, is "Dorritt Little," who got a double degree in political science and journalism but can't land a good job.
March 19, 2012

On Saturday morning, a warm sun rose above Zuccotti Park as a throng of Occupy protestors with guitars, drums, tents, and signs burst out of winter hibernation to start a spring offensive that would land dozens in jail before nightfall. East of City Hall, a bulging line of people from all walks of life girdled the Spruce Street side of Pace University to register for the Left Forum, a yearly gathering that is the successor to the Socialist Scholars Conference. A few St. Patrick's Day revelers, clad in kilts and shamrock-themed green, passed them by.

Across the East River, a 35-year-old Hunter College graduate student named Monica Johnson woke up with debt on her mind. She's always thinking about student debt: the $88,000 she racked up between college and graduate school, and the legions of Americans whose unpaid student loans now total close to $1-trillion, twice the amount owed five years ago, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Student-loan debt now exceeds credit-card debt in the United States, with full-time undergraduates borrowing an average of $4,963 in 2010, according to the College Board.

Most students do not pay the full cost of college, but more and more are taking out loans. And if borrowers face severe financial problems, their student loans cannot be forgiven in bankruptcy, unlike most other forms of debt, such as gambling debts, that can. Some observers predict that student debt will be the country's next big financial crisis.

Young people like Ms. Johnson, who are starting adult life deeper in debt than students a decade ago, see themselves as part of a new generation of serfdom. Even as their debt grows, she and others say that student activism around the issue is weaker in the United States than in other countries due to a psychology of shame and guilt.

For Ms. Johnson, the experience of student debt is not just a private affair. It is an "epidemic where lenders are like crack dealers who give young people a taste for signing financial contracts for funny money in exchange for their future labor," she says. "The hope is that students become adult addicts who will never develop a connection with their personal financial and political autonomy."

Ms. Johnson, who is pursing a Master of Fine Arts degree in integrated media arts, is working on a graphic novel, to appear online, about the student-debt crisis. Her protagonist, who is inspired by her own experience, is a college graduate named "Dorritt Little" who got a double degree in political science and journalism but can't land a lucrative career. Her character finds herself serving tea and muffins at a cafe called "Stuckbar," where she makes twelve bucks an hour and has no future. Dorritt Little ultimately decides to go to graduate school, thinking she'll get a professional degree so she can be more competitive in the job market in which she wants to work. But then she finds herself in debt and questioning the value of her degree.

Ms. Johnson has also created a Web site as a discussion forum for debtors who can also learn about the different options they have for paying student loans. On Saturday, she was getting herself ready to present on a panel at the Left Forum about student debt.

Her goal as a "visual activist" is to combine her political cartoons with Web tools like wiki links and flash petitions to influence public opinion. She hopes that her political actions will help change the dominant discourse that says student debt is a personal moral failing to one that says it is a form of social control. "You only see it as indentured labor once you see that there is no way out of student debt," she says.

Ms. Johnson is an activist, yes. But unlike some of the Left Forum's more radical attendees, she doesn't consider herself some kind of Marxist rabble-rouser. More than anything, she wants to show people what it's like for young adults like her to live under the weight of modern-day debt.

Motivated to Get Out of Debt

Ms. Johnson was born into a white, working-class family in Grand Rapids, Mich. Both of her parents have associate degrees in technical fields, and she is the first in her family to earn a bachelor's degree and to attend graduate school. She now lives in Dutch Kills, Long Island City, in an ethnic jumble of blue-collar workers, artists, hipsters, and students. She shares a modest two-bedroom apartment with a roommate.

Her living room is filled with furniture pieces that were purchased from Ikea and Craigslist. As she talked, she sat on an old office chair that was rescued from the garbage. Underneath a small sewing-machine station is a metal bin stuffed with cotton-yarn scraps, rolled-up vinyl, crochet needles, and other fabrics that she uses to extend the life of her clothes. Her bed is a mattress without a frame, and she can count the number of shirts and pants in her closet.

"This is a functional apartment," she says. "It's a sanctuary from what's out there."

Ms. Johnson says her parents feel horrible about her situation, but they have not been able to offer her any real advice about financing her education because they have no experience doing it themselves. "Money matters in general are not discussed very much within my family in part because there isn't much of it," she says. "Money is usually a depressing subject that we don't talk about unless it's absolutely necessary."

But she had no problem talking about how she racked up $75,000 in debt as she whips up a bowl of raisins, granola, and yogurt—the kind of food that "sticks with me so I don't have to eat much during the day." She paid a significant amount of her college tuition at San Francisco State University with grants and with her own money from a job, but she graduated in 2001 with $12,000 in loans. After college she worked in restaurants while she submitted portfolios to art galleries in Berkeley. She also held various jobs, from working on museum installations to conservation framing, but those positions did not pay well.

"People I talked to said that I needed to have an advanced degree." she says. So, like her comic character "Dorritt Little," she applied to graduate school with high hopes.

In 2006, she enrolled at the Pratt Institute, where annual tuition was $40,000. On top of the money she needed for tuition, she also took out loans to pay for books, a computer, and living expenses. After spending a year at Pratt, Ms. Johnson left because the program was not giving her the skills she felt she needed to be competitive.

When she enrolled at Hunter College, she took out another $4,000 in loans for tuition. Her debt totaled as much as $88,000. Six months ago she started paying it back. "I have been living in a way that has allowed me to pay back almost $13,000 over the last six months," she said.

That means eating lots of peanut-butter sandwiches. She splits the $1,600 rent and utilities with her roommate and works full time at the Alliance For Young Artists and Writers in SoHo. If she gets any kind of gift money or extra income, she immediately turns it over to her lenders. She pays more than the minimum balances due on her loans and uses cash instead of credit cards. On average, she tries to pay $300 a week toward her debt even though the loans are still deferred while she's at Hunter. But because her loans are not subsidized, they are still accumulating interest.

"I feel very aggressively motivated to get out of debt by the time I'm 40," she says. "I'm pushing myself, but I can't really judge at this point whether I can do it."

An Average Story

By the time Ms. Johnson arrived at Pace's downtown campus, the Spruce Street entrance was teeming with activity. A middle-aged man was tucking small flowers in the throats of scores of black and brown military boots that belonged to men and women killed in the Iraq war. A man handing out a newsletter with the headline "REVOLUTION," kept repeating, "You can't change the world if you don't know the basics."

Inside the gates, middle-aged women were in one corner chanting and doing tai chi. A collection of yogis dressed in orange were in another corner having a whispered discussion.

Many of the young women here were dressed like Ms. Johnson. They wore army jackets, beaten boots or loafers, faded jeans, loose worker pants, big scarves doubled around their necks, and multiple piercings in their faces.

For Ms. Johnson, who had not presented at the Left Forum before, this gathering was a far cry from the usual graduate-school conferences, where students wear their best and engage in sedate exchanges. The exhibit rooms here were packed with people crowing over books, journals, bumper stickers, and buttons with phrases like "Frack off" and "Would Jesus Bomb?"

A few minutes before presenting at her afternoon panel, Ms. Johnson reached into the droopy gut of her bag and pulled out her peanut-butter sandwich. As she ate, she talked about how being an educated debtor is both empowering and disempowering.

On the one hand, having so much debt has added an aggressiveness to her work ethic and her survival instincts. "Because of my debt, I negotiate all of my contracts based on the value of my labor and not on what I need to survive," she says.

She's grateful to have a job that allows her to pay her bills while she finishes her degree. But the disempowering part is having no money that she can save for a home or to take a risk on a more-entrepreneurial career path.

"There's a loss of autonomy that comes from not being able to own the wealth you've earned," she said.

At the end of her day, Ms. Johnson crashed back at her apartment. The conference has left her feeling optimistic.

"I feel like a big movement is really starting to happen. Even the old-timer activists seemed more optimistic than usual," she says.

"My story is so average," she adds. "You could take my situation and multiply it millions of times, and that's the dominant graduate experience in the American higher-education system."