Student Loans

Student loan debt has been getting a good deal of attention lately, which is good.  For too long, colleges (and the public beyond) ignored how much debt students were having to take on to complete a college degree.  There’s not complete agreement on how much debt students graduate with, but the most common figures range from $28,000 to $29,400, with the Wall Street Journal saying just last month that the 2015 graduating class is the most indebted ever (yet), owing a little more than $35,000, a huge jump from the previous years.  What’s especially bothersome is the rising percentage of students who have to take out loans at all, as nearly 3/4 of students now need to do so.

I’ve been thinking about this subject for the past few years, but I wanted to write about it this week because I made my final student loan payment just a couple of days ago.  I realized that I have had some sort of student loan debt for more than half my life, as I took out my first loan when I was 22, and I’m on the edge of turning 45.  I made my first payment when I was 27, after I took my first job, which means I’ve been paying on them for roughly 18 years.  That’s not exactly true, as I put them into deferrment for three years (at two different points in life) when I went back to graduate school (twice), and I put them into forbearance once for a couple of years, I believe.

That forbearance hints at the reason it took me longer than it should have to pay off my loans.  In that summer before my first job, I didn’t work, so I lived on credit cards.  Part of those expenses were necessities, but a lot of them (and I mean a lot) were not.  Thus, I ran up some significant credit card debt, believing I could pay it off quickly and easily.  That turned out not to be the case.  I then went back to graduate school and doubled my student loan debt in one year.

Quick interesting side note:  If I’m remembering correctly, not a single penny of my loans actually went to tuition.  I didn’t have to take out loans for my undergraduate degree, as I cobbled together enough small scholarships, work study, and off-campus work that lowered my tuition to around $1000 per semester, which my parents paid, while I paid all my living expenses.  My loans helped me through graduate school where I received assistantships that covered the tuition and gave me a small stipend to live on (How small?  One was $5000 per year, which is not really liveable on its own).

After going back to graduate school and doubling those loans, I found myself owing roughly $60,000 in student loan debt (for five and half years of graduate school) and $20,000 in credit card debt.  I was making $28,000 a year as a high school English teacher.  There was no way I could get out of credit card debt while making my student loan payments, so I put them in forbearance (that’s where interest accrues while you’re not paying on them).

My debt, then, was a combination of my poor financial planning, my indecision of what I wanted to do in life (the return to graduate school), and the economic realities of trying to attend graduate school in the 1990s (stipends are much better for graduate students these days, and some even include health care, something we had never heard of).  I can’t imagine what students who graduate with $25,000 or more in loan debt do if they want to go to graduate school.

So, what can a professor do about all of this?  We don’t have anything to do with setting tuition rates, and it’s not like we can create avenues of income for them ourselves.  However, there are still a few things we can do.

First, take their concerns seriously and try to understand the financial strain they’re under, especially when their work impacts your classes.  I wrote an essay years ago (which is no longer online, unfortunately) about jokes at graduation about student loans.  Such comments tell students we don’t understand their situation.  When we don’t at least provide sympathy for their situations (note I’m not saying to adjust course material or simply let students off the hook when they have to work), we convey a lack of concern for the realities of their lives, which are different than how most of ours looked in college.  When we joke about it, we’re just being offensive.

Second, advising matters more than you know here.  If we advise a student poorly, it can lead to him or her having to take another semester of classes or even just having to take one more class in a summer term.  That can lead to serious financial consequences.  My college is rather cheap (comparatively), but causing a student to take another semester’s worth of classes would cost an additional $7500 in tuition.  Books, room, and board (and general living expenses) would easily push that past $10,000, which could all go toward student loan debt, especially if staying an additional semester would push a student past his or her limit on scholarships.  Even if a student only has to take an additional summer class to keep on track, those classes aren’t cheap, and they can cut into a student’s chance to work to save money for college.

Last, professors can push for more scholarships or lower costs around campus, and we should.  Our colleges and universities raise a good deal of money for bigger and better buildings, but we should push our administrations to spend part of that money or raise additional funds for scholarships.  We can push politicians to increase grant money for low-income students, those most in need of help.

We can talk to our students honestly about finances.  We can give them ideas about how they can better manage their money and not make the same mistakes we did (I tell them my story as often as I can).  If we hear of job opportunities on campus, we can make them aware of them and try to help them get them.  We can nominate them for scholarships or write letters for them.

It is easy to feel like we can do nothing to help our students to pay for college, but there are ways we can help them.  They live in a different financial environment that most of us did, and we need to acknowledge that reality.  If we care about our students, we need to find ways to help them get an education we obviously believe in.

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Things I Don’t Know

I often talk about the importance of admitting what I don’t know.  Most of the time, that relates to the classroom environment.  I talk about how students can tell when we are faking knowledge, though it sometimes takes them some time to do so, and how that undercuts their faith in us.  Over time, if we are unwilling to admit our ignorance, we will develop a reputation as someone who is more concerned about how they appear to students than actually teaching well.

We are often ignorant of things outside of class, as well, and we need to be equally willing to admit it in those situations, as not owning our not knowing can also cause trouble there.  For example, this past week, I received an email from a student in an introductory course, and she wanted to get an incomplete for the course.  She was also withdrawing from the university.  I had never heard of such a situation (even after thirteen years here), and I didn’t know how to handle it.

Part of me wanted to go ahead and respond to the student, as it was clear she needed an answer quickly, given the date for withdrawing from the university was just a few days away.  Instead, though, I forwarded the email on to my department chair and asked for her input.  She told me that the situation didn’t make sense, and she told me who to call the next morning.  I did, and we cleared everything up, and now the student has all the information she needs to make the best decision for her.

Admitting our ignorance helps even more when it comes to advising.  Even though I have been advising students here for the past thirteen years and have won our award for excellence in advising (sorry for the horn tooting, but this fact will just further show my point, I hope), I call or email someone for help with a question about once every two to three weeks during our advising time.  Sometimes, it’s a question about where a certain class can count or not; sometimes, it’s where they go to change something or to get something corrected; sometimes, it’s a problem I’ve never hit and couldn’t even imagine.

This willingness to call or email people to clear up problems comes from the fact that I have seen mistakes made that truly affected students or I have made those mistakes myself.  The one that I will always remember came about eight years ago when a professor advised a student incorrectly, and it affected one of my classes.  The student needed to take a writing practicum to earn a minor, and the professor told her that our literary magazine would count.  When the student discovered that it wouldn’t, she had to find something else during her final semester.

I was teaching an American Novel course for the first time that semester, and she had planned on taking it.  It was a small class, and it was one of the strongest I had ever taught.  She was one of the strongest students in her group (and, still, one of the strongest I’ve ever taught), so I was looking forward to having her in the class.  Because of the incorrect advising she received, though, she was unable to take it.

Granted, this didn’t keep her from graduating, but it could have, and the problem could have been cleared up if the advisor asked one simple question instead of guessing.  Such questions come up every semester for most of us as advisors, and the solution is simple.  Asking these questions would make everyone–students, those in charge of academic advising, our chairs–much happier, as it is easier to take care of a problem on the front end, then to try to fix it after it has happened.  So, pick up the phone or send an email.  It doesn’t take more than a few minutes, and it can help so many people.

We’re Not Making Mini-Mes

Most of us of a certain age remember the Austin Powers movies.  The second one introduced mini-me, that genetically reproduced, yet smaller, version of Dr. Evil.  You might not remember that Dr. Evil already had a son, Scott, whom he did not appreciate.  He wanted Scott to be like him, but Scott wanted to be his own person.

I was thinking about that idea this week after I had a conversation with a student who was struggling with what she wants to do after graduation.  She had already talked to two professors before coming to see me, and that was the problem.  Both of them, with nothing but good intentions, I’m sure, had encouraged her (rather strongly) to pursue the fields they are interested in.  Even though she is finishing her junior year, she was talking to me, her advisor, about double majoring, which won’t be possible without adding on another year.

When I asked her what she wanted to do after graduation, she admitted that she doesn’t know.  She just likes both of these fields, but she knows she can’t do both of them.  I encouraged her to get some experience with the one she was thinking of adding, which would help her make a decision over the summer, as she’s planning to go to graduate school in one of these two fields (which she feels compelled to do immediately after graduation, a decision I think is a poor one, but it is hers to make; my job is only to offer advice, then support her in getting where she thinks she wants to go).

I’m frustrated by professors’ tendency to push students into their field, even if that’s not in the best interests of the student.  In my first year of college teaching, I did the same thing.  There was a student who was thinking about attending law school, and he was considering English or Political Science.  When I talked to him, I talked about the amount of writing one does in law school and how the thinking that one does in analyzing literature is almost identical to the thinking one does in analyzing legal documents.  He told me that he had been talking to a Political Science professor who told him almost the exact argument about Political Science.

It dawned on me, then, that neither I nor the other professor really had this student’s best interests in mind.  All we wanted to do was recruit him to our major.  One more major meant another student in several of our classes, which would make our enrollment look better, after all.  In a competitive university environment, every student counted, we knew.  Given life in universities after 2008, that competition is even more fierce.

However, I choose at that point never to do that again.  I am happy to talk to students about all our major has to offer, but I’ll also encourage them to explore other disciplines they’re interested in.  I tell them to take introductory courses in a variety of fields to make sure they know what they’re getting in to and what their true interests are.  I try to give them a neutral place where they can talk about what they feel called to and help them figure out where they really need to be.

This is especially important for those students who want to become professors.  The make up of higher education has changed so much over the past twenty to thirty years that we cannot continue trying to graduate students who want to attend graduate school to become professors.  If a student, after all of the warnings about the job market, wants to try to become a professor, it is our job to help him or her as much as we can.  However, it is not our job to try to crank out people who follow the same path we followed.

There’s a Buddhist saying that doesn’t make much sense to those of us in the West (as most of them don’t).  It says, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  Christians, for example, would never use such a phrase to talk about Jesus.  What they mean by that, though, is that practitioners of Buddhism cannot simply do what Buddha did to achieve enlightenment.  Everyone must find their own path.

The same is true for our students.  Our paths and our stories can give them ideas and inspiration, but they should not serve as blueprints.  Our students need to find their own paths, and it is our job to help them find those paths, not to push them down the same ones we traveled.  I understand that it is difficult when you love something not to want everyone to love it, but students can love something without making it their life.  I hope my students love reading the literature I teach for the rest of their days, but I don’t want all (or even most) to make a life out of it.  There are too many other great pursuits out there, and I want them to explore as many as they can.