The Chronicle Review

At What Cost?

A successful academic faces lifelong debt

Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle Review

November 29, 2009

There are some things in life, we all agree, on which you simply cannot put a price tag. The pursuit of knowledge surely qualifies as one of those things—or so we in academe tell ourselves. Thanks to the popular MasterCard marketing campaign, the word "priceless" has become code for "something so inestimably valuable that you will shell out oodles of invisible dollars to attain it." In an era of skyrocketing college costs, those invisible dollars have certainly come in handy for students wanting to earn that "priceless" degree now and pay for it later. But if we have learned anything from the accumulative frenzy of past decades, we should not be deriving our values or our spending habits from credit-card companies' pithy aphorisms.

No shortage of attention lately has focused on the way creditors took aim at college students, enticing them with the plastic power to obtain not just the latest edition of a Chemistry 101 text but limitless late-night pizza deliveries, iPhones, and trips to Daytona Beach. Those who were duped will be sweating out those ill-advised purchases for years to come, and we will very likely see fewer cases of such reckless extravagance in the future. But in this moment of sober reflection and energetic reform, it seems that we are overlooking a critical population: not the students intoxicated by consumerism's free-for-all, but the young people for whom credit cards bridge the chasm left when scholarships and student loans drop off. Those earnest scholars, who may be the first in their families to attend college and who cannot prevail on parents for even basic necessities, have relied for decades on those invisible dollars to make their priceless dreams come true. As the credit boom goes bust and the smoke clears, our nation must confront two imposing questions: What do we do about the mountains of perhaps insurmountable debt that are locking those young graduates into the same struggles from which education promised to free them? And in the gaping hole left by the implosion of credit dollars, what is left for the next generation, for whom education has become increasingly essential and yet staggeringly unaffordable?

While the credit boom ushered in what economists call the "democratization of debt"—anyone can have a flat-screen television, or two, or three—in some ways it also facilitated the democratization of education, and with it, equal opportunity to rise in society. Now, however, we have taken several stumbling steps backward in our efforts to extend the benefits of learning to the citizens who need it most. With lending restricted across the board, even traditional sources of student-loan support have become harder to obtain. I am not for a moment suggesting that we revert to the predatory and usurious practices of reckless lending and borrowing that have long plagued us. But I am acutely aware that we don't seem to have any good fallback alternatives in place.

I grew up in a blue-collar community on Cape Cod, a region driven by tourism in the summer and sustained by working-class labor in the off-season. I attended an underfinanced school district where students had to choose between taking a foreign language or an art class (I successfully lobbied to give up a study hall and take both). Somehow I managed to earn a scholarship to a prestigious women's college. I then went to graduate school in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the nation. By the time I left graduate school, at the age of 28, I was the proud owner of a doctoral degree and about $30,000 of what credit counselors call "bad debt." If there is a "good" kind, I had that, too—and it more than doubled the initial figure.

By my calculations, I will have long passed the age when I might have retired when those staggering bills are paid down enough to allow me to think about purchasing a home, paying college tuition for children, and perhaps getting myself a brand-new 2045 Ford Fusion. I have attained a level of success that many academics would envy; after holding two tenure-track positions in a saturated market, I recently made a final move to an Ivy League department. And yet I labor mightily to protect the secret that none of my colleagues or students would ever suspect: I am worth less every year.

At my first teaching job, I would park my rusty, sputtering old Buick LeSabre in the far rear parking lot of the campus, hurrying to my office before anyone could spot the dents in my polished, professional exterior. I have been cultivating that veneer to a high-gloss sheen for a long time.

It helped to have a mother who worked hard (scrubbing other people's bathrooms, mostly), dreamed big, and considered money "green paper" that could buy only momentary happiness. Even when we lost our home and were forced to spend a miserable year holed up in the basement of a distant relative's house, my mother managed to shield my sister and me from the worst effects of poverty. And during those years, America was growing exceedingly adept at helping people like my mother keep up appearances at all costs. I remember spending a rare Saturday at the mall with my mother and sister, and pining over a momentarily trendy polka-dot skirt and matching cropped jacket. My mother, armed with a fresh department-store charge card, impulsively insisted that my sister and I each pick out an outfit. Soon enough those cards were cut up, and we were paying for those silly outfits long after they went out of style.

To the world, we were sweet, well-groomed, smart, and attractive—and amazingly, the world did take notice. In 1989 my mother was invited to appear on a "Deadbeat Dads" episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, explaining to millions of viewers that my father was one of the top 10 child-support evaders in our state. At the time I was fiercely proud of my mother's courage (and I also thought she looked strong and pretty on-screen), and that sentiment remains today. But for a number of years after I left my coastal town for elite, ivy-covered campuses, I found it difficult to be proud or even honest about where and what I had come from.

As an undergraduate, I surveyed my privileged peers with envy. While many of them dipped into apparently self-regenerating bank accounts for various necessities and indulgences, I worked several part-time jobs to cover what my scholarships didn't. One particularly demanding year, I trudged to my shift at a local dry cleaner every afternoon, then to my evening job as a waitress at a pizza parlor. I returned to my dorm in the wee hours of the morning, only to get up early to help serve breakfast in the cafeteria before racing to class. On weekends, I cleaned the opulent homes that skirted the college's idyllic campus; sometimes I wrote essays for English class in my head while scouring bathtubs.

While my dorm mates lounged around most of each day, I bore down, studied hard, and graduated with enough decorations, medals, and awards to set off a metal detector. But I often found myself boiling in silent rage as affluent peers trumpeted self-righteous Marxist rhetoric. On the rare occasions when I let slip something about my humbler background, I had to endure middle-class refugees lamenting how bad they'd had it, too.

I kept silent throughout much of graduate school. As zealous as I was about my studies, I felt naïve; I lacked the perspectives, pedigrees, and deep cultural knowledge that my peers brought to the courses. My dissertation, on literature and economics, grew steadily more cynical: I remember my adviser looking at me over the corner of my first draft and asking, "Is there anything hopeful in here?" It was years before I realized that my dismal thesis reflected my persistently undernourished spirit.

Despite my misgivings, by the time I finished my graduate studies I had achieved a modest level of visibility, a tenure-track job at a respected university, and even a book contract. Yet those signs of progress were repeatedly balanced by moments of shame that sent me reeling back to the world I was trying to forget. Checking into a prominent scholarly conference one spring, anxious to give my first paper as a newly minted Ph.D., I passed my credit card nervously to the hotel clerk. That morning I had nickel-and-dimed my finances until I'd freed up exactly the right amount of credit on my nearly maxed-out Visa. Apparently, I had miscalculated. The clerk patiently tried my card several times and helped me phone the company, while I shielded my crimson face from the well-known scholars milling about the lobby.

Such moments shatter professional credibility in the world of academe, where hardship is a category of analysis and occasionally a metaphor (as in, "I slaved over that article!") but almost never a reality. The poverty-stricken graduate student is a cliché, and often a flimsy veil for a not-so-distant past of privilege; but the debt-ridden professor is a humiliating aberration. I have studiously concealed my shame under an elaborate cover of cheerful togetherness and quiet pride. No one ever saw me rolling coins from my change jar during a particularly bad month, and I prayed that no one saw when, as I rushed to the bank, those heavy coin rolls plunged through the Ziploc bag and pirouetted all over the parking lot. It took almost 15 minutes to gather them up, while impatient cars swerved around me.

That seems as apt a metaphor as any for the scrabbling, scrounging, perilous difficulty of trying to finance one's way, nickel by nickel, into a better life. Education is an integral part of that journey. But it may no longer be possible for people like me to struggle up this road. I will be paying off my education for a long, long time to come.

Yet although the shame of poverty haunts me, I know that I wouldn't change my life for the world. That book contract eventually became a published monograph on economics and identity, one that helped me to land my dream job; and my work continues to explore the complex trauma of living under the warping influence of capitalism. I know that I wouldn't be able to continue that work if it weren't for a magical confluence of hard work and invisible dollars, and for that, I feel incredibly lucky. But in these dark days of economic catastrophe, I am keenly aware of how expensive that illusion ultimately is—for me, as I battle the true cost of that lifeline indefinitely, and for the generations to come, for whom the word "priceless" may mean something entirely different. In an ideal world, education should not have a price tag; but in this world, it is hefty, and few can afford it outright. Perhaps exposing this brutal truth might shame us as a nation into recalibrating our values, and financing—free of interest and penalties—our last best hope.

Melanie R. Benson is an assistant professor of Native American studies at Dartmouth College. She is author of Disturbing Calculations: The Economics of Identity in Postcolonial Southern Literature, 1912-2002 (University of Georgia Press, 2008).