For a big chunk of my childhood and teenage years I lived in a mid-sized university town in Canada. My mother taught at the university, and I spent a fair amount of time wandering around libraries, student lounges, and green spaces on campus, pretending to be a mini-student. I remember that there was a popular cafe, run by grad students, right in the middle of campus. It was an old brick house with a patio. Sometimes, I would meet my mum there, and we would have a bite to eat on the patio. One of the exterior brick walls of the cafe, abutting the patio, was covered in numbers written in chalk, many of them running into multiple-digit lengths that were beyond the comprehension of my twelve year-old math skills. I kind of admired their colourfulness. It was neat that students wrote stuff on walls. (I’ve always had a thing for graffiti.) At some point, when I was older, maybe fifteen or so, I realised what those numbers actually were. Written way up high, above the scribbled, colourful digits, were the words: Wall of Debt.
The numbers represented individual students’ debts and loans, accrued over their years as undergraduate and graduate university students. I don’t remember any exact figures from the wall, but, looking at current student debt stats, I’m sure many of them floated around, and even more above, the $20,000 mark. And that’s just Canada. In the US, undergraduates who finance their education wholly via loans can expect at least this much debt in just three or four years, let alone tacking on two or more years of graduate studies. As a young person planning to enroll in a graduate degree program next year (and excited about it), these numbers turn my stomach.
Let me take a step back, though. I’m a twenty-four year old woman without a high school diploma. I homeschooled/unschooled the last two years of high school (actually, I spent most of those years either travelling or working on biodynamic farms). I don’t have a lot of money. In 2008, I applied and was accepted to a small, private American college based on a portfolio, rather than a GED, SAT, or high school transcript. Thanks to this portfolio, I received a full scholarship. I now have a B.A.—and, more importantly, I received an absolutely superbe, enlightening four years of intensive study. And all that for the cost of room and board (which isn’t negligible, but also doesn’t add up to a $20,000-$40,000 debt). I graduated with zero debt. Most of my fellow students didn’t share this experience. During my time at college, I didn’t generally stop to consider how much money I wasn’t spending on my education; I couldn’t hang a price-tag on my experiences, no matter how many zeros I tacked onto the figure. Nevertheless, debt was real: at the beginning of every semester, most of the other students were summoned up to the financial aid office to figure out their loan and grant packages. Figures were floated by me at the dinner table. I felt lucky, and relieved. I also felt increasingly angry that my friends were being faced with enormous financial burdens that might just slow them down on their way to pursuing their dreams. Financial burdens that would follow at least some of them into their fifties and sixties. Because yes, 2.2 million Americans over sixty still owe money on their student loans.
The debate about student loans is pretty wrung out. It’s not a useless debate by any means, but the fact is that as the conversation carries on, millions of students go further and further into debt. It sucks. I’ve been slow to wake up to this reality. It’s easy to set it aside when you’re “getting a free ride.” I feel deeply thankful to my alma mater, and when the time comes that I can give back financially (more than the tiny amount I send to the annual fundraiser), I will, without a doubt. You might wonder why I say that, since all the student debt might look like the college’s fault to begin with. I think in many cases that’s true: the quality of the education isn’t on par with the cost. But I went to a school that did its best with what it had: minimal endowment, a tiny student body, and no big-name corporate sponsors. Every on-campus student was guaranteed a work-study job, and those with higher need were eligible for actual pay-checks. That’s quite a feat, for a small school, especially one that’s geographically located in the most “inconvenient” place (when it comes to finding work as a student, anyway). And have you heard about schools divesting their fossil fuel stock holdings? They did that, too, and they were the third college in the U.S. to do so. All that is something I believe in. (Though all the while I wish the college had had more scholarships, grants, and alternative funding available.)
But for now, I get to plunge into the experience of financing my graduate degree head first, with no experience, and no thick skin, whatsoever. Oftentimes, in the conversation about student debt, the example of free education in Europe is brought up. I was born in Germany, and spent part of my childhood there. I’m an EU citizen, which means that I could take advantage of free education in the old world. There are plenty of reasons why I probably won’t do that, which include that the education I am seeking just isn’t available in Europe. It’s a longish story… But back to free post-secondary education. It’s great, right? Well, I’m not sure. It’s a tough call to make, especially because I seem to be arguing against tuition. The thing is, though, that a university education isn’t right for everyone. It’s not a class thing (or, it shouldn’t be), or a judgement call on my part. I know plenty of people who were much happier, and more successful, learning outside of the university environment—in some ways, I am, too. The problem with free education is that while some people who should have access to post-secondary ed. really can’t afford it, some people can. There is value to this kind of learning, and as much as some of us would like to avoid putting a price-tag on it, there is one. It’s inevitable, since we live in an economy based on, um, yes, sadly, cold, hard, cash. And so, those who can pay, should. In my opinion, the best way for universities and colleges to handle the gap is to adopt the work-college model that is used by some schools in the U.S. There are only seven registered work-colleges in the U.S. Really? Come on, right? I know most schools offer some work-study positions, but these colleges take it to a whole new level. At some schools, like Berea College in KY, all (ALL!) students work 10-15 hours/week, and thus are able to pay off all their tuition as they study. This translates to zero, or very little, debt. I went to one of those work colleges, and while we only worked 4-8 hours/week, it was an interesting, enriching, and educational component of my time at school. Yup, working taught me stuff! I love the fact that we basically had to work while we studied. I think this is smart in an obvious kind of way. (Oh, and by the way, I had to work even though I had a scholarship. I think work should be part of everyone’s education.)
Now that I’m looking at grad programs in the U.S. and Canada, I’m saddened to see that, from the small handful that offer the degree I’m interested in, a number suggest that first year M.A. students not work. The course-load is too heavy, they write, to make time for part- or full-time work on the side. This is just wrong. The course-load should accomodate work. I’d gladly add an extra six months or a year onto my degree if it meant graduating without debt and, even better, working in my field of study and earning money while pursuing my degree. I’m not interested in an insular education that demands I detach myself from the rest of the world and live in temporary and unrealistic stasis, dependent on a fake income that will later come back to haunt me. I love learning, and I love the concentrated amalgamation of resources and experience that is a university. But I also love to work. And I don’t believe that I should experience undue stress (and pressure from faculty who believe that working students cannot focus fully on their studies) because of this. For now, I am trying to be optimistic about the process. I’m excited about the prospect of doing an M.A. (M.L.A., actually, for those who might ask), and I’m trusting that the details of financing my education will come together without too many hiccoughs.
I’d be curious to know about other people’s experiences with the big Wall of Debt. Do share, if you feel so inclined. And thanks for reading! xo