Student Debt Headlines and the Humanities Degree


The New York Times and the Chronicle have mounted a one-two this week to publicize the problem of student debt (something I’ve posted on previously here and here and here).  In an extensive front-page story from Sunday, the Times lays out the problem from the perspective of undergraduates, and the Chronicle followed up today with an analysis of graduate recipients, particularly Ph.D.s working as adjunct faculty, that need welfare and other public-service benefits to make ends meet.  Both provide extensive analysis; the Times piece in particular leverages an extraordinary amount of statistical support.

The implications of the problem are broad, now that more than half of graduating seniors are going to college.  If college is fast becoming a prerequisite of stable middle-class employment, it seems clear we need policies that provide education without burying the students under a lifetime of debt.  I was fortunate enough to attend a state school on scholarship; many of my colleagues won’t finish paying off their educational loans for a decade or two.

One place where the Times piece suffers is in its analysis of the sources of the problem.  The first causal factor it identifies is the growth of for-profit colleges, particularly through the nineties.  I’m not a fan of for-profit colleges (I especially don’t think they should be eligible for federally-backed student loans if their graduation rate is substantially below 50%), but I don’t think you can blame for-profit schools for the explosive growth of costs and loans at other public and private colleges.  Even with the growth of the for-profit sector, it accounts for only 11% of higher education.

A far bigger problem than for-profit colleges is the tradeoff between social programs and federal support for loans, something the Times article barely touches upon.  As I’ve argued before (in line with a point made by Sarah Kliff last fall), we have to think about the budgeting problems that public colleges are making within the broader context of state budgetary pressures. And as long as states see a basic tradeoff between funding for higher education (which is potentially self-financing), versus funding for medicaid (which is matched dollar-for-dollar by the federal government), colleges and students will lose out.  (Incidentally, I recently heard from a friend who works on Capitol Hill that some members of the senate are coming to the same conclusion.) Real change probably has to come from a shift in federal policy and priorities. But in the current climate, fat chance.

The long term effect, from the student’s standpoint, is to shift from direct financing of student education to encouraging students to assume the financial risk of their degree.  We’re no longer speaking metaphorically if we describe a college degree as a speculative commodity. And the marketing teams at college recruitment clearly recognize this:

Enrollment Management, a newsletter aimed at college admissions officials, urged writers of admissions materials to “avoid bad words like ‘cost’ ‘pay’ (try ‘and you get all this for…’), ‘contract’ and ‘buy’ in your piece and avoid the conflicting feelings they generate.

“There are direct marketing ‘words’ that can make or break your piece” the article, published in 2009, added.

Rather than looking at the college degree as a straightforward transaction, (credentialing experience purchased at a pretty hefty price), they encourage students to be forward-looking and think about the long term speculative value.  The degree is a vehicle, not an end.

To some degree, I agree with this perspective — college has to be about more than the four year (or five year, in my case) experience.  But if the long term benefit of a degree is cast in terms of speculative finance, we have a problem — particularly in the humanities.  The problem of defining the value of the humanities is perennial, (and should be), and as I’ve argued before, poorly captured in the studies we have of long-term career outcomes. The so-called “intangibles” are, by definition, even harder to measure. To put this baldly, increased tuition and increased student debt call humanities education into question.

And as the Chronicle piece testifies, this problem is only exacerbated in the case of a Ph.D. I note that all of the faculty receiving public assistance in the article are in the humanities — most of them in English (something the article, perhaps tactfully, does not emphasize). This should sound the emergency klaxon in every graduate English department in the country — including those that successfully place a high percentage of their graduate students (while also providing full funding for their education). Michael Bérubé tries to strike the right note in the article by emphasizing that there’s nothing wrong with public assistance (when I was a kid, my parents relied on food stamps while my dad worked on a masters). I also liked Marc Bousquet’s observation that, essentially, we’ve been reading too much Bourdieu:

“A big part of what we do in graduate education is foster this sense of vocation and teaching for love and passion for what you do,” says Mr. Bousquet, who is also a contributor to The Chronicle’s Brainstorm blog. “We socialize people into accepting the coin of reputation as status capital. Some people are so deeply socialized into the regime of payment by way of status that they are essentially trapped in it for life.”

(Of course, anyone who thinks being a US professor carries the same cultural caché as in France needs to spend more time off campus.) Here we get the reverse of the dilemma of the undergraduate humanities degree — Bousquet argues that we should think more concretely about the financial implications of seeking a position as a professor. But I’m surprised to note that no one in the article brings up the number of Ph.D.s we mint in the humanities each year.  It’s fine and well to blame a bad economy, but no one was talking about how great the market for adjunct teaching was five years ago. I promise.

This is a meandering post, and I don’t have any final words. But it’s clear that (1) more people are starting to worry about student debt, (2) the problem is starting to be framed (as mortgage lending and healthcare have been) as a long-term crisis, and (3) the problem is acute in the humanities. So let’s get to work.