Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Money for School

Student loans are more in the news now than ever.  They are the topic of lively debate among the official Very Serious People on the political chat shows, debates in Congress, and are a driving force behind the Occupy movement.

I have my own history with student loans.  Most of my many years as a professional student were paid for by scholarships.  I got a small scholarship to go to art school in the late 1970s and took out some small loans.  I worked all the way through undergraduate school, mostly in kitchens.  Graduate school was mostly paid for with scholarships.  I got full tuition scholarships from Washington University in St. Louis plus a fellowship.  I got a partial tuition scholarship from the New York Academy, and the rest I made up for with loans.
Until recently, my employment situation for the last 20 years was very precarious.  I mostly did very low paying insecure jobs in commercial painting and in adjunct teaching at a number of local colleges.  As a result, I paid very little or none of my student loan payments for a long time.  A lot of times it was a choice between the landlord and Sallie Mae, and Sallie Mae lost.  I am making my monthly payments in full now, and they are doozies.  My monthly student loan bill is now almost as much as my rent.  I can barely afford it.  All of my payments now are going to pay off years of accumulated interest and penalties.  I paid off the principle a long time ago.
On a certain level, I accept my situation.  I went into a profession that does not pay well at all and is largely marginalized.  On the other hand, why should I be penalized twice because conventional society is too selfish and stupid to value either fine art or teaching?

My students at the community college where I teach have a much worse time of it.  Scholarship money is not nearly as generous or abundant now as when I went to college.  Tuition, even at small public colleges like mine, is much higher than 30 years ago.  Almost all of my students work.  Most of them work full time, even full time students.  Some work 2 full time jobs and they raise children or take care of other family members at the same time.  Many are Iraq/ Afghanistan veterans who are returning to a job market that is not at all glad to see them.  On top of all of that, the rules and procedures around Pell Grants and Stafford loans and New York State financial aid become more punitive and exclusionary every year.  Many students, even accomplished ones, are forced to drop out because they cannot get the money together for tuition.

One aspect of this situation that I think is under-appreciated is how much this dance of rising tuition and diminishing financial aid has affected the classroom.  I was in grad school when this dance all started, and I remember my old profs complaining about declining enrollment in arts and humanities departments, and that their students were becoming stenographers passively scribbling down everything that was said without challenge.  My professors all went to college on the GI Bill at a time when it was possible to work part time and pay for tuition, something that is impossible now.  It's hard to pursue a major in egyptology when you are staring a fifty to sixty thousand dollar debt load in the face.  It's hard to consider a major in physics or biology or engineering with a future of crippling debt burdens.  It's hard to consider medicine when the debt load after med school is a quarter million dollars.  As a result, business schools on university campuses are booming, and state colleges and community colleges are transforming themselves into glorified vocational schools to keep up with the demand.  The very high paying financial industry (and corporate law) attract most of the USA's brightest, though probably not its best.  Given that reality, few students are going to be inclined to rock the boat in any classroom.  Students now are more likely to see their courses as hoops to jump through on the way to that desired degree rather than as a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Some of our best and brightest students have had to turn down admission to prestigious institutions because they could not afford it.

I wonder if anyone else thinks that a 22 year old carrying a thirty thousand dollar debt load on graduation is lunacy?

As to the notion that college affordability reflects relative merit and accomplishment on the part of students and parents, I have only two words, legacy admissions.

So often, colleges will admit students not because they are particularly bright, but because their parents can afford the tuition bill and they have a history and clout with the college.  A young man who I hired as a model years ago was a Columbia grad.  He came from a poor background.  His father was a mentally ill Vietnam vet and his mother was a Mexican cleaning lady.  He went to Columbia entirely on scholarship because he was brilliant (he already spoke 4 languages in high school).  He always complained about the dumb-as-dirt legacies who took up so much space and resources that could be better spent.

Political rhetoric to the contrary, our higher ed system is not much of a meritocracy.  Think of George W. Bush, the ultimate legacy student.  There are times when I think higher ed is returning to its 19th century function as gatekeeper for an established and self-perpetuating oligarchy.  There will be trouble when people eventually figure this out, because they pay those sky-high tuition bills and suffer those debt loads because they think they are buying a ticket into the professional classes.  If the whole system is rigged against them, then why should people support it?

If I had my way, it would be the Finnish model.  All education from pre-K to post-doc would be public.

Something to ponder this May Day.


Counterlight said...


Would you please post your comment again? I accidentally removed it, and I apologize.


JCF said...

I'm your "Exhibit A", Doug.

Did you hear, when Mitt Romney was asked about student loans, he responded, basically, "Pick a money-making major"?

The ONLY thing that would keep the Rethuglicans from hurling me to the wolves, is that my book-learnin' was all about Jeeesus (well, until they hear it's Episcopal-Church Jesus, and THEN I become Wolf Chow!)

it's margaret said...

I THINK I said something to the effect of --yes, pre-K to post-doc public. And ALL required to attend. If parents want to send their children to private education, it would need to be considered extra-curricular, after-school activity. No home schooling either --unless it's after school....

something like that any way --

--and yes --the school system as it exists is nothing but a rigged gate-keeper thang. Just sayin'.

chris miller said...

I went to college back in the 60's with no particular career ambitions - just to learn about the world.

But I don't think I'd have taken out any loans to do it -- and I sure wouldn't take out loans today - given that the internet - and Worldcat - offers so many opportunities for a Liberal Arts education -- with websites like yours, for example, which offers so many great lectures in art history.

(though you site could be better if you encouraged more interaction)

Counterlight said...

Don't know if you're selling anything, chris miller, but the problem with internet learning is that you can't get from Wikipedia or anything else the official degree from an accredited institution in order to qualify for most professions, medicine for example.

As for this blog, it is and shall remain a hobby.

chris miller said...

No, I’m not trying to sell you anything, Doug Blanchard.

I’m only suggesting that if academic certification is not required, it doesn’t make much sense to go into debt to acquire it. And that especially applies to those who want to become seriously involved with the arts, unless they want to teach in accredited programs.

I would then suggest that most accreditation serves the institutions that provide it far better than it serves the professions being accredited.

But that’s another issue.

And I hope you weren’t using the word “hobby” in a deprecatory way – because, thankfully, you seem to be taking your internet “hobby” quite seriously, even if it doesn’t help you pay off your student debt.