Graduate Student Debt Matters

Brian Taylor

November 20, 2011

How many of us are aware of the amount of debt that our graduate students are carrying?

I certainly did not consider that question until recently, but it marks a path leading to precincts that professors must explore. When we design curricula or set graduate-program policies, we need to think about how much money our students will one day owe. If debt affects our students' lives—and it surely does—then it should affect our thinking about how we teach, and about graduate education generally.

Like undergraduates, most graduate students take out loans to finance their studies. Their debt loads are increased by rising tuition costs, but without the same hope for a compensatory high salary that motivates millions of undergraduates to borrow large sums. The scandalously small percentage of Ph.D.'s who land tenure-track jobs is no longer news, of course. But even tenure-track jobs are not lucrative enough. For a would-be academic, grabbing the brass ring—that is, getting a professor's job or some other intellectually rewarding position—can lead, instead, to a lifetime of debt servitude.

Tuition used to be low, especially at public universities, so the federally supported student-loan industry initially cost little when it started, in 1965. But it's grown exponentially, so that now one out of every three dollars that Americans borrow (excluding home mortgages) goes to pay for higher education, with a total principal that is nearing a trillion dollars.

Public colleges and universities—which enroll about three-quarters of U.S. students—depend more and more on tuition, a model that Bob Meister, of the University of California at Santa Cruz, calls "privatization." Where do the students get the money? Lots of them borrow it—and they're borrowing more and more. (The thriving resale market for these government-guaranteed, bankruptcy-proof loans contributes to what Meister calls "financialization.") The more students borrow, the more they have to pay back—and, thus, the poorer they are. It follows that we're impoverishing our students at the same time that we're educating them.

Professors get paid in the form of borrowed money. In a speech to the demonstrators at Occupy Wall Street last month, Andrew Ross, a professor of American studies at New York University, deplored the fact that his salary is largely "debt-financed." He called the growing mountain of student debt "an unsustainable moral burden."

"Today's public universities are selling debt," writes Meister in "Debt and Taxes: Can the Financial Industry Save Public Universities," an article published in the fall 2011 issue of the journal Representations. Private institutions, too, are selling debt. The average federal loan debt for a graduating senior in 2010 was more than $25,000. It's even higher now. (And I'm not including private loans and credit-card debt, which add thousands more.) The appeal of loans lies in the assumption that they're an investment that will allow graduates to attain higher salaries. (As borrowing rose, college graduates did, in fact, receive higher and higher salaries at first, but for more than a decade now, nearly all U.S. income growth has been restricted to the top 1 percent of earners, according to Meister's article.)

But graduate students aren't necessarily seeking financial return on an investment. Many of them are simply trying to pay for their studies in the only way they can. Only a small percentage of graduate students receive full financial aid. Even if we keep that in mind, graduate-student debt levels are startling: The 2004 median figures are $28,000 for those who have master's degrees, and $45,000 for Ph.D.'s. Those totals don't even include undergraduate loans. (Note, too, that those figures are medians, which are more telling than averages in this case. Some graduate students, especially those at wealthy universities, finish with little or no debt, while others might carry $75,000 or more.) "I've got debts no honest man could pay," lamented a couple of desperate Bruce Springsteen characters in 1982. Many graduate students could sing the same song today.

The social implications of undergraduate debt are wide-ranging and disturbing. More than one analyst has pointed out that student debt turns higher education into a tool to perpetuate inequality (by promoting the notion that people should invest in themselves to get ahead), rather than a comprehensive social good (based on the idea that an educated citizenry is good for the country, not to say the world). Moreover, high undergraduate debt naturally discourages students from attending graduate school, in effect reserving advanced study for the economically privileged.

Graduate-student debt encompasses those concerns, but the specific situation of graduate students—many of whom aren't seeking primarily to make a buck with their Ph.D.'s—highlights the constraining nature of debt.

Jeffrey J. Williams, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, persuasively compares student indebtedness to indentured servitude. For a new Ph.D. who is lucky enough to land an intellectually rewarding job in her field (whether in or out of academe), the burden of paying off student loans on a relatively modest salary means a life of poverty, however genteel. The Princeton economist Paul Krugman warned in 2005 that the United States is threatening to become a "debt peonage" society, in which borrowers work endlessly for creditors to service debts they can never retire. The gigantic indebtedness of graduate students threatens to turn them into intellectual sharecroppers.

Professors—paid representatives of the academic industry—have a responsibility to face this debacle and do what we can. That starts with keeping the facts in front of our eyes. Our control over this issue may be limited, but there are things we can do. We can promote some of the current policy suggestions to do away with student debt and make higher education into a public asset again. That would be a salutary public debate to have.

We can also view the time-to-degree question through the prism of graduate-student debt. When I wrote last month about how academic job searches tend to privilege candidates who stay in graduate school longer, some commenters downplayed my concern. "Who wouldn't hire a [more experienced candidate]?" asked one, while another declared, "Potential is just that" and called it a "risk" to hire a less-experienced Ph.D.

But if more time in school equals more debt, then a preference for more experienced Ph.D.'s essentially adds to graduate-student indebtedness.

Graduate students in the sciences receive the most financial support. They also finish their degrees the fastest. Humanities students receive lower levels of support and, thus, pay more dollars into the system. They finish more slowly and take on more debt. (They also work longer for the university at apprentice wages, paying sweat into the system—without receiving any "sweat equity" in return—before they start writing checks to the banks that issued their loans.)

Of course, part of the reason that graduate students take longer to get their degrees is that there aren't enough jobs waiting for them. Educators need to adapt to that reality by changing our practices from stem to stern—including not only the leisurely way we prepare our students for the job market (and not just the academic market) but also the way we assess them for professorships once they are prepared.

Andrew Ross suggests that students form a boycott and refuse en masse to pay back their loans. That's a radical proposal, but my main problem with it is that it deflects the primary responsibility for solving the problem onto the weakest members of academic society. I don't mean to suggest that student protest isn't essential—it is. But faculty need to step forward and take our own stand against a cynical system that inhibits our educational mission and hamstrings our students before they take their first steps.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at