From time to time as I’m awake in the wee hours of the morning (again), I find myself face to face with a certain amount of student debt accumulated over decades of higher education and I begin to wonder if there is some better strategy for overcoming this debt than the current plan to make my payments on time and have the remainder discharged after still more decades.
Often, half as a form of activism and half as a kind of wild, naively hopeful ambition, I think I’ll start a new blog called “The Bitter Academic” (if that’s not already taken) or begin a new series of highly sensational books aimed at graduate school prospects that function as a kind of expose-slash-what-you-need-to-know about life in the academy and its risks.
— § —
Thing is, I’m not bitter about my experience with higher education, as some are. Oh, the debt load is intimidating and seriously limits my options, but at the same time, it’s a one-sided calculation to pretend that I haven’t benefitted in some way.
I didn’t properly finish high school, so if I hadn’t gone to university at all, my job prospects would have been those of a male dropout in America from a lower-middle class family on the wrong side of the tracks. In short, I’d have absolutely been on dead-end street.
So I went to college. I was exceedingly bright (they admitted me early, as an attempt to rehabilitate what they thought would otherwise be a tragic waste of an otherwise capable mind) but at the same time the factors that led to my being a high school dropout also compromised my ability to progress well at university, and it took me ten years to finish my undergraduate degrees (though I ultimately did finish, and two at once).
At that point, I was likely done with loser lane, but at the same time, with a state university bachelors-level qualification in America that is not in STEM (I had switched from computer science by then, unable to meet, early on, its need for personal discipline) but rather in the humanities, my job prospects continued to fall short of need and expectation. College had “growed me up,” finally and in the end, as they say, but it merely helped to guarantee that I would get a job, not a good job, much less be able to build a career.
My prospects simply weren’t those of the high school valedictorian that had gone to Harvard and earned good grades and an internship; I was still playing catch-up, uncompetitive with those that were going somewhere. There is a kind of compounding effect at work. Be a high school valedictorian and you can get into a top university with great grades; get into a top university with great grades and you’ll enjoy scholarships and internships before you graduate; get scholarships and internships before you graduate and you’re on track to a great job and ultimately career when you’re done.
My trajectory, instead, was to start from behind, a high school dropout in college struggling to pay for my education, which mean that I wasn’t competitive for scholarships and internships, which meant that I wasn’t going to graduate, when I did graduate, with good job or career prospects despite having invested heavily in education.
But what was available to me, by virtue of my having completed and finally acquitted myself reasonably well in the end, was more education. And, that being the apparent difference between, on the one hand taking the years I’d already invested in education and turning them into a rather low-paying, low-prospects work life, climbing the ladder for years or decades just to reach the middle class and, on the other hand, having some hope of a professional career at the end of the day, I went. But of course, given my trajectory to that point, significant assistance, financial or otherwise, was still not on offer. I remained an “uncertain case” that had proven that I could play the game and come back from behind, but not that I was a superstar worthy of investment.
Once again, on the strength of the opinions of those that knew me best, I was “given a chance,” this time to attend a big-name institution. As a part of the deal, however, I’d need to pay my own way, which—given where I was—meant student debt for graduate school. I took it on. And I got my masters degree.
Having finished that degree, I was finally able to begin to secure work at the entry level of the white collar world. To have a title and to earn what could justifiably be called a lower-middle class income. Unfortunately, even for a single man, this entry-level lower-middle class income did not keep up with the requirements of debt service. Graduate school had boosted my employent prospects into the realm of the respectable and promising, but it wasn’t “paying its own bills” and I was running out of runway, to so speak.
And so the obvious thing to do was to return to graduate school once again. That, in theory, would boost my employment prospects still higher, all while putting “on pause” the need to service previous student debt. But once again, my past had already placed me on a particular track, and it was the “you haven proven yourself bright, but not a certifiable winner” track. Scholarships and the opportunity to gain professional experience along the way were finally on offer, but only partially. It was “Now you’ve shown yourself worthy of some investment—but perhaps not the kind of investment we make in valedictorians from Harvard.” So, student debt once again to make up the difference. And, given that I was now in my thirties, also to live some semblance of a normal life while still slogging along through studenthood. After all, you only get one life; you can’t put off living it forever just to better your career prospects. Or rather, you’d seriously prefer not to, given the choice, since you’re not getting any younger.
At length, I completed the Ph.D. This time, I (in many ways) finally caught up, with a sterling record, multiple honors, and strong faculty support. Job prospects became generally excellent—not for academic work per se, whose competitive market is the subject of much writing elsewhere, but I’d finally been able to work early and often on career-track jobs that paid much more handsomely than those I’d been competitive for with a mere masters degree. And I’d finally been able to date, marry, and become a family man.
Unlike the superstars, however, in reaching this point I’d accumulated significant debt, and this meant that I was still behind; there was no way that I could, despite faculty support, sensibly pursue the academic career path of low income and hard labor for many years. Upon completion, I’d be on the hook for large payments. And once again, it seemed as though my ultimate financial identity had changed little. Much better jobs and incomes, but much heavier debt service as well that significantly limits my options and my future.
— § —
This story could easily sound like a bitter one, since there have ultimately been limited net financial benefits; for a long time it has been, essentially, a kind of net financial stagnation since the first undergraduate degrees.
There have been benefits in other areas, however. The work that I’ll be doing for the rest of my life is more interesting, more autonomous, relatively speaking, and higher in status and exposure than the work I’d have done for most of my life had I stopped after completing my undergraduate degrees.
Along the way, I’ve been able to see and live in interesting places, live an increasingly stimulating and, for the average person, exotic intellectual life, and experience professional growth and satisfaction in a variety of industries in ways that have enriched me as a person. I met my wife and owe much of my personal life, such as it is, to my educational history.
And I have both confidence and competence that I’d never have otherwise had.
In short, despite the lack of financial progress, I’m living and will likely continue to live a far better life in a number of qualitative ways than I otherwise would have. Certainly my first foray into higher education mattered. I am not left sitting, for the rest of my life, next to sign on a street corner that says, “High school dropout, will work for food.”
So there have been benefits. But none of them, I’d say, have been financial since the undergraduate days. For me at least, decades of higher education have essentially been a way of treading financial water; academic progress meant that I’d earned the permission to take on more debt in the interest of a more preferable quality of life, with sufficient increases in earning capability only to service the debt I’d taken on. In short, I’ve repeatedly earned the right to take on and successfully service more debt. The advantage that was meant to sell me on the prospect (and that, indeed, did) was that I’d live a generally better life.
And so I do and I have.
— § —
But all of this leaves me with the question of what to do now.
Being in the position of basic financial stability with regard to this debt—I am able to work at a career, and to service it successfully—I am of course now in a position to begin once again to ruminate on ways to get ahead of this game.
What if I were able to find a way to completely repay it well ahead of schedule? This can’t merely be a matter of “discipline” as the debt is simply too large and my income prospects still too middle-class for discipline to make much of a dent in the ultimate balance.
But if I were able to find a way, I’d finally, finally actually be ahead of the game financially relative to where I began. Without debt to service, I could, for example, pursue an academic career, or save some money for retirement, or live a relatively comfortble life, and so on.
But how? This stage of the process requires more enterpreneurial thinking.
— § —
Unfortunately, building out a “sensationalist critic and exposer of the academy” persona and trying to leverage it in the interest of income won’t quite do. The brand of “The Bitter Academic” isn’t going to be the tack.
Because at the end of the day, I’m not bitter. I did, in fact, begin all of this as a drugged-out high school dropout, and am grateful that someone took a look and said, “Maybe he’s not a lost cause after all; with his brain, perhaps we can get him into a university somewhere on a probationary basis and see if he can succeed there in some way and make something or other of his life.”
So I couldn’t well sustain it. And it would be a betrayal of some very generous people who have helped me along the way, and are not themselves the reason that our system works the way it does, turning years of investment and debt not into a better financial life and better financial prospects on a net basis, but rather essentially into better social status and titles.
I couldn’t stomach the carrying out of such a betrayal, particularly if it wouldn’t even feel genuine to me.
— § —
So I’ll continue to muse about this sort of thing, when I’m up early in the morning without necessarily wanting to be, and feeling the full weight of the debt service that lies ahead of me over time, and what it likely means for my future: that I’ll never really be financially better off than my lower-middle class parents were, even if I enjoy more prestige and deference from others, as well as a more interesting work life.
Hopefully something will come to me at some point. I am, after all, a doctor and a professional in marketing and communication. There must be some way to shift ahead a bit, even while running breathlessly on a very rapidly spinning treadmill.
I just have to find and act on it.