Should you go to college? The answer used to be self-evident: college was a path to upward mobility, a ticket to middle-class adulthood. Higher education played a particularly critical role for women looking to secure independence through financial stability. But increasingly, stories about college focus on the relentless burden of student debt and efforts to channel students toward majors that will help them beat the ugly job market. In this installment of The Curve, Anna Clark, Susan Feiner, Nancy Folbre and host Kathleen Geier do the math, exploring the role that colleges play in breaking or boosting the class hierarchy in today’s economic landscape.
Anna Clark: You can’t use the word “debt” without stumbling on its double meaning. A seemingly simple term for money owed, it is steeped in morality. “Forgive us our debts” goes the Christian prayer, meaning “sins.” As David Graeber points out, our language of business depends on our language of ethics. “Reckoning,” “forgiveness,” “accountability” and “redemption” refer to both the state of our soul and our credit status. Our understanding of who owes what to whom defines our vocabulary for right and wrong. History is as much a story of lenders and borrowers as it is a story of rich and poor.
It is no coincidence, then, that most of us find it hard to talk about owing money. Americans believe that if we work hard and make smart choices, we’ll succeed, no debt required (except, perhaps, for a mortgage)—and along the way, we will be good people. When we borrow heavily to pay for college education—perhaps the most significant step we take toward good work and financial stability—guilt and shame are common feelings, to say nothing of panic and fear.
With fast-rising tuitions and stagnant wages, fewer of us are immune from borrowing to pay for our university education. And delaying or forgoing college while we save is a difficult option: according to the Center for American Progress, weekly earnings for workers with a bachelor’s degree were $1,066 in 2012, compared to $652 for workers with a high school diploma. Those without a degree are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed. For many, going to college, then, is simultaneously a rational economic choice and an economic disaster.
Count me among them. I’ve been paying off loans for my undergraduate and graduate education since 2007. I was an in-state student at the University of Michigan, and I attended the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College; I paid my own way through both of them. I’m proud of this—again, that morality and money connection—but pride doesn’t pay the bills. I took extra semesters at both schools, totaling seven years in higher education, but I also worked nonstop, had a few small scholarships and paid what I could on my tuition along the way. No unpaid internships for me: I hustled in the dorm dining hall and the hospital gift shop; I gave tours of the campus and of the natural history museum; I knocked on doors for an environmental group and made sandwiches at Potbelly’s; I went bleary-eyed with boredom as a corporate go-fer and bleary-eyed with exhaustion while weeding and watering as a campus groundskeeper. To my mother’s horror, I was frequently the paid subject of medical and psychological research experiments. These days, I’m working through a get-out-of-debt plan that is meaningfully moving me along. I refuse to believe I will be a debtor my entire life. But it’s slow: with interest, after eight years of payments, I still owe about $66,000 on my student loans.