March 27, 2013

anthropology and student debt

Student debt is everywhere.  It seems like everyone is going into debt.  It's unstoppable, endless, ubiquitous.  We're all in debt.  We're all drowning in numbers and compound interest.  All from an attempt at "getting ahead" and going to school.  Ya, something's not right about all this.  You know this.  More and more seem to fall into the debt trap each day.  This includes a lot of anthropology students--graduate and undergraduate.  I am pretty sure none of you out there started studying anthropology in order to get trapped in debt.  I sure didn't.  Did you?  I doubt it.

So what happened?

The subject of student debt sort of ebbs and flows.  Sometimes it comes up more than others.  I was hearing about it a lot when all the Occupy Wall Street stuff was going on last year, and when this book, and this one, were published.  That was about the time that I first heard about the project on student debt.  Lately though I haven't heard too much about this issue...but it's not like it has gone away.  It's still here.  And we're all still in debt (well, not all of us, but far too many).

This past week a few different people sent me some different links about student debt.  One was this short video of Suze Orman talking about some of the traps of student loans.  She makes good point.  It turns out there's really good money in handing out loans with 6 or more percent interest to students who need to find a way to pay for their college educations.  Imagine that.  Student debt is a moneymaker.  It's also a major economic bubble, kind of like the housing market a few years back.  We all know it, and I think a lot of us are just wondering when the crash is going to take place.*  I don't see how it can last much longer without some major collapse of some sort.  Lots of people are, for a lack of a better way of putting it, "underwater" when it comes to their education and student loan debt.  Maybe that's when more people will really sit down and look at this seriously.  But another point that Orman raises is the fact that student loan cannot be discharged in bankruptcy: you're stuck with it.

Someone also sent me this quote by Noam Chomsky:
Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society, Chomsky suggested. “When you trap people in a system of debt they can’t afford the time to think.” Tuition fee increases are a “disciplinary technique,” and, by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the “disciplinarian culture.” This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy.
That one has been passed around quite a lot.  Love him or hate him, Chomsky has a point.  This is something to really think about: what are the actual effects of all these loans, of this avalanche of debt that slides over so many of us?  When students get overburdened with debt, how does this affect their decisions and actions once they graduate?  What happens to goals and ideals and future plans when graduates are really only able to think about getting out of debt?  What's the point, really, of studying anthropology or [enter your field of study here] when, after you graduate, all you have time for is finding some job, any job, to pay your debts?  I ask this question all the time.  It completely defeats the purpose of studying a field like anthropology only to end up hamstrung by excessive debt and unable to put that knowledge to use.

In a certain sense, a strong belief in the possibilities of anthropology--despite actual experiences and practices in academia--is what keeps people pushing forward.  I think people are willing to go into debt, in part, because they still hold out hope, a belief in the possibilities of anthropology.  This idealism is what draws in undergraduate students and keeps graduate students from dropping out.  Student loans are like life rafts for many of these people--and I am one of them.  And, like that old Talking Heads song, sometimes I ask myself, well, how did I get here?

It's good when people send me links, notes, and bits of news that get me thinking.  Now I am thinking, once again, about student debt--and what this means for anthropology.  Or, more specifically, how anthropology might be marshaled in order to really take this student debt thing apart and do something about it.  I suppose we could all just sit back and lament the current state of academia...or we could do something else entirely.  I am leaning toward the "let's do something" option.  On that note, here's the conclusion from Brian McKenna's piece on Counterpunch about student debt back in 2011:
Anthropologists must reflect hard on Henry Giroux’s challenge to “take back higher education.”  The discipline cannot fall into the neoliberal trap, laid out by Florida Governor Richard Scott, of justifying anthropology in terms of its value in market terms. Indeed, too many jobs serve the very pernicious social order that is driving the public sphere and social state into ruin.
And yet, a job is life.
Clearly then, many questions are left unanswered about the job/loan dialectic for de Jesus and platoons of other anthropology students across the country. And for us all. I asked a recent undergraduate anthropology class of 32 students and found that about 70% expected debts over $20,000. This included two students anticipating debts over $30,000 and one over $40,000. We do not have a good accounting of the total debt load within anthropology. We need it.
We must fight to release students and professors (how many are still in deep debt?) from this  burden. Tamara Draut, author of Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30- Somethings Can’t Get Ahead (Draut 2006) asks, “How can the government justify charging students nearly 7 percent while it charges the banks nothing (Draut 2011)?”
Universities were once viewed as laboratories for free inquiry and debate. Today they are under siege from privatizers, ideologues, anxious college administrators...and the banks.
It’s time to return universities to faculty. And it’s time to provide our youth with a fresh start in life, unburdened by debt peonage to Wall Street.
Read the rest here.  Then ask yourself: Did you get into anthropology to get bludgeoned by debt?  Ya, me neither.  So now what?  Well, I think we might be able to marshal this anthropology thing to find some answers.  But more about that later.  For now, comments and stories welcome.

*One good thing: I am pretty sure nobody will be able to board up my mind and foreclose my education.  Not yet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You complete spoke my mind. My 29 years old with a Master's degree in Cultural Anthropology and $79K in student loan. I haven't been able to make very big loan payments, because I'm still too busy trying to find a job that will allow me to pay it off comfortable. I can only make $100 a month at this time while I also have a wedding to now pay for, which I would wish my fiancee would change his mind and just have something really small. I don't even have hope of buying a house. Once I start making bigger loan payments it will already be like paying a mortgage. So why bother? It's useless. The education system has made me so upset to realize they're just making money off my hopes and dreams. If I didn't have this debt I would have continued doing internships in Washington, DC hoping to get my foot in the door way of a non profit. Unfortunately, you have to eat at some point and find a decent place to live. I still have hopes and dreams, but it's becoming a struggle to get there. The last thing I want to do is give up either. I would love to hear more from you about this.
Andrea Ochoa