succumbing to peer pressure

Monday, February 02, 2009

I'm a douche

Fair warning: if you're carrying around student debt, this post will probably make you want to punch me in the face.

The goal was taught to me at a very young age - graduate from school poor, but debt free. A combination of upper-middle class parents who had the luxury to help me make up the difference during undergrad, hustling for every scholarship I could lay my greedy little hands on, and the dumb luck of loving a field that people throw money at has made it possible for me to graduate well within that goal. So I claim total naivete when it comes to student debt. I'm sorry, I know many of you have it, I swear I'm not judging you, it's just something I have had the extreme good fortune to know nothing about.

So I'm standing in line for a movie with a friend (who reads here - hi!) and she mentions a deal where after 10 years in public service/govt work/etc. you have the opportunity to have your remaining student debt waived.

Me: blink. blinkblink.

I have no poker face, so I know I have to cop to the astonishment I'm feeling - it will take more than 10 years to pay off student debt?

I know, I know! I warned you! You'll want to punch me in the face.

So. If I had bothered to crunch the numbers on it (ha! a statistician who didn't bother to crunch the numbers) it would have been immediately obvious how rapidly and how relatively little debt it takes before you're paying that sucker off for decades. Which, I'm sorry, is madness. Now, hang in there with me, I'm not judging you, I'm judging the system.

Setting aside debt from professional schools (lawyers, MBAs, doctors, etc.), the majority of graduate students with debt are in the humanities. The average time to a PhD in the humanities is now up around close to a decade (depending on sources average is 7-9 years). So if you go straight through school, don't have to stop for a masters, and work fast, you have the chance of becoming a doctor just shy of your 30th birthday. Which means you'll be paying off debt under the current system well into your 40s and probably 50s. If you take time off, get a masters first, work full time to support yourself during grad school and therefore take a few more years to complete your degree, we're talking even older upon graduation and further into that fifth decade with the debt. Which means you're paying off debt essentially until retirement has snuck up on you.

Now, humanities majors also tend to make less money, compared to, say, the hard sciences (on average). So they a) take longer to earn their degrees (average in the sciences is 5-7 years), because they're working for a living while earning their degree, b) take on more debt to earn said degree, and c) earn less money upon graduation.

How is this system not madness?

I'm thinking about all this, not only because I'm feeling like a total douche for the conversation with my friend (hi!) but also because of Sybil's post over at BitchPhD, where she outlines all the reasons NOT to get a PhD in the humanities and the comments are full of people lamenting their debt.

Now, my naive impression of student debt has always been that it's an investment, that it makes sense, blah blah blah. And again, I don't mean to judge or undervalue anyone's personal decisions. But how in the hell did we ever get into a situation where people are paying off their student debt instead of saving for retirement?? How in the hell did universities, banks, and the government somehow pass this off as a sustainable system??

And why in the hell are science majors, who are going to graduate with starting offers pretty close to six-figures and have the run of industry or academia, getting away debt free? This is why I'm practically a socialist.

(yeah, yeah, no one is entitled to a PhD in whatever field they love, it's not society's job to pay for doctorates in philosophy, or dead romance languages, or whatever humanities field you want to trot out as failing to make a tangible contribution to society, etc. etc. etc. Beat it with your rational, capitalist arguments. I don't care.)


Blogger Sudiptya said...

Ben Stein recently wrote in a NYT article the following advice for his son:

"I have been pondering what advice to give them about money. What I keep coming up with is this: Do not act like typical Americans. Do not fail to save. Do not get yourself in debt up to your eyeballs. Work and take pride and honor from your work. Learn a useful skill that Americans really need, like law or plumbing or medicine or nursing. Do not expect your old Ma and Pa to always be there to take care of you. I absolutely guarantee that we will not be. Learn to be self-sufficient through your own contributions, as the saying goes."

Now, I do agree with the general spirit of your post, but y'know I can't let this one go without playing Devil's advocate... gimme a bit to formulate a pithy, short, logical response.


9:13 AM  
Blogger reyn said...

What scientists do you know getting starting offers near six figures? More importantly, how do I get their job? I'm an engineer and it took me nearly four years AFTER finishing my Master's to get a job that came close to justifying the first degree, and still hasn't justified the second. I'll be lucky if I see six figures anywhere before I die.

I don't have student debt, but that's not because I won the lottery or entered witness protection after college; it's because my parents planned ahead. WAY ahead. They started my college fund when I was three, and put more money in whenever they could. What little amount survived six years of academic thrashing is now fermenting slowly for my retirement.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Melly D said...

One thing that might make you feel not as bad about the student debt thing is that as far as loans go, the interest rates can be fairly cheap. Granted, I happened to luck out by taking out my loans a few years ago when interest rates were ridiculously low (and that I chose a segment of public health that pays comfortably well), but there's some disincentive to paying them off faster because my extra dollars are better served being put to the principal on my mortgage. I'd be perfectly ok paying off my mortgage before paying off my brain.

9:07 PM  

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