Bootstrapping My Way Into the Ivory Tower

Brian Taylor

November 08, 2011

Critics of higher education love to suggest that we professors are living it up. But I'm not. I have less than $100 in my checking account. I've been ignoring a recurring robo-call from a company trying to collect a $50 payment that is overdue. The gutters on my house are falling off. My electric bill is late, and I can't drive my car because the check-engine light is on.

Oh, and I received tenure this past spring. I'm not kidding. And no, I don't have a fat savings account, and no, I am not irresponsible with money.

My salary is average for someone of my rank, discipline, and college size. If you're a college professor, people assume that if you don't have a healthy bank account, you must be a closet gambler or have some other hidden addiction. But my financial predicament is a result of bootstrapping my way into academe, and the harsh reality of leaping from rural Arkansas to a professor's job in upstate New York with no financial support system along the way. Indeed, it was not a leap at all but a long, slow, humiliating slog.

I am a single parent, which explains some of the financial struggle. In the rural South, where I grew up, having children before 25 is the norm. So when I found myself pregnant and alone at 23, I decided to keep the baby, and returned to graduate school a few pounds heavier in the fall. I completed my master's program through sheer willpower, had my son, and immediately entered a Ph.D. program.

I am aware that, in that situation, most people would simply find a stable job close to home. I was unwilling to relinquish a dream I'd had since the age of 10. So I refused to listen to the voices—some of them quite real and very loud—telling me that in order to be a "good parent," I should understand my limitations and give up on academe. That is the first obstacle those of us wishing to overcome our lower-income background must face. Many people will tell us we simply cannot have what we want because of who we are, because of where we come from. And the humiliations that came with carrying an illegitimate baby in graduate school? I don't know where to begin.

There are the countless hours I spent in offices applying for social services: food stamps; Section 8 housing assistance; WIC (food for mothers and young children); Medicaid; heat assistance. There is the professor who told me to leave a teaching assistants' meeting to which I brought my 4-year-old: "And take that with you," he said, pointing to my son.

Every single purchase was impossible. I could pay for child care or books, but not both. Every bill that was paid meant another was not. Even generous scholarships don't take into account seven hundred dollars a month for child care. And yet I felt ashamed for every dollar I borrowed and every bill I couldn't pay.

When I graduated and began teaching, things improved—a little. Now making about $30,000 a year, I began paying back my student loans. But when my car broke down I couldn't replace it, and had to bike to the grocery store. Our rental house was small, pest-infested, and drafty. Every month we would eat peanut butter and macaroni and cheese as we waited for the next paycheck.

I sensed that it was uncouth to talk about late bills and shut-off notices at work. My academic peers weren't living recklessly, but they did have nice apartments, clean furniture, and simple luxuries like new clothes, compared with my thrift-store clothing. Most friends were now buying homes with assistance from their parents. My own parents distanced themselves from me, reading my academic ambitions as a judgment of their frugal lives, by then based on one office manager's salary. Needless to say, there could be only the barest support from home when I had a financial problem. Not only did they have no money to offer me, but they already saw me as living an affluent life with my books, college-owned computers, and work-related travel.

Here's what happens when you are living close to the financial edge as a single parent in academe: You need to attend an academic conference to interview for a job, as your current position is a one-year temporary position for someone on sabbatical. So you have to buy a plane ticket. Sure, you'll be reimbursed from the college's travel allowance for about 80 percent of the trip. But how will you buy that plane ticket in the first place, in order to be reimbursed a month or two later? Credit card? I'm afraid not. That was closed out last year because you couldn't pay for it while you worked as an adjunct for $15,000 a year.

Well, ask your parents for a loan. Weren't you listening? OK then, ask a colleague to help you. I could, but that violates all standards of friendship, especially the one where you aren't supposed to tell anyone affiliated with your job that you don't have enough money to go on an interview. And your nonacademic friends? They don't have any money, either. So why not ask the college for an advance? Because it doesn't give advances. And you have just violated the unspoken standard that stipulates you should never reveal your financial struggle if you are in academe.

So here's what I did, and I am not proud of it. I phoned a guy I had been dating who had recently been exposed as a cheater; he had no fewer than three other girlfriends while we were together and had lied repeatedly to my face. I knew he had air miles. Lots of them. So I asked him to help me. He did.

Fast forward 10 years. My son is now 17, and I have just received tenure at a fine college. Although things are much better, I'm still paying back student loans and I am nowhere near "safe" financially speaking. My colleagues are lovely, but I can tell how different my story is from the typical experience. When we go out to dinner, I become anxious, knowing that with so little in my checking account, I must order a cheap entree. When everyone orders bottles of wine and appetizers and then decides to split the bill evenly, my heart sinks. Either I must tell them I cannot afford to contribute to all that, or I must risk having my debit card rejected in front of them.

A few months ago, my car broke down and wiped out the meager savings I had earned by teaching over winter break. A large heating bill left me juggling expenses until this past summer, when I took on four extra jobs to rebuild my savings. I took work advising new students, teaching a summer-school course, prepping a new course, and doing online development for another course.

At the same time, I was finishing up my first book. However, the people at my publisher who were responsible for issuing the tiny book advance I was supposed to receive were slow about sending that money. So now I was once again depleted of cash, staving off creditors, and amassing late fees. Should I have e-mailed my publisher a third time to complain that I had not yet received the book advance?

Such things are embarrassing. They suggest that I am irresponsible somehow, when the simple fact is that some of us just don't have as much as others. We didn't have parents who paid our way through graduate school or gave us money for a down payment on a house, and we got kicked around financially in other ways. No matter the cause, those of us who don't have money in reserve have an awkward and humiliating place in academe.

This ought to be a victory story: Small-town smart girl becomes a tenured college professor. And I am very proud of my achievements.

But let's be honest here. The system doesn't easily support those wishing to improve their lives, especially those raising children in the process. I'd like to think that we still live in a country where dreams come true, where education is open to all who are capable and hardworking. But what I had to do was almost impossibly difficult, and the degree of shame and cognitive dissonance I carry around is palpable.

Without food stamps, housing assistance, subsidized student loans, and Medicaid, there is no way I could have made it through graduate school. Today all of those programs are under threat. To kill those supports is to kill the dream entirely for some people, and to be another voice telling smart young women to just give up and accept the limitations their backgrounds imposed upon them.

If that happens, the only people able to make it into academe will be those with a privileged financial background, whose families can step in when life challenges them. But even existing social supports will not allow full entry into the ivory tower. If you start behind, you'll stay behind, no matter how hard you work.

Tenure won't protect you from heating bills, car repairs, or the fact that you can't buy milk until tomorrow when you get paid. It won't protect you from bill collectors who don't give a damn that you can't pay them now because you haven't yet received your first royalty check. Shh. Don't tell anyone.

Rachel Wagner is an associate professor of religion at Ithaca College.