Hello from post-academic-working-busy-life land! I’m so intensely sorry to have neglected the blog. I have excuses but they are boring. I think I’m finally settling in to my job and will have more time and brainspace to write here.
A few months ago, I started a series of entries about student loans and how grad school culture supported my awful financial choices for a decade called “Let’s Talk About Debt.” In the third essay, I wrote that loans could — and probably should — be considered a prison sentence:
Really, let’s reframe student loans as a prison sentence. The higher your debt, the longer your sentence. And 5 years might seem like nothing at 22, but I’m telling you that ten years later, 5 years seems like a big chunk of your life, and that’s if and only if you are able to put a huge amount towards loans every year. Most people – like me and my family – can’t approximate that.
So you might say Fuck it, I’ll just make my minimum payments for 25 years or whatever and just count on having to pay it. OK, yeah, that makes sense (if you ignore things like the massive amount of interest you’ll pay); but really, think about what you could be doing with that $400 or $500 (or $1000) per month. You could… save for retirement. Get your kids the braces they need or help pay for your Mom’s nursing home costs. Go on a honeymoon in San Francisco instead of camping. Get your dog the surgery for his hip instead of putting him to sleep. Invest in the stock market, or buy a kickass car. Fix the car you already have. That kind of money, month after month? It can be a life or death, eat or go hungry difference.
I wanted to add a new wrinkle to this conversation after a chat I had with a coworker earlier this week. We were talking about being broke and going broke. This coworker is a close friend and fellow ex-academic who came to work in advising after completing an interdisciplinary PhD and trying (and failing) to find full-time teaching work in community colleges and the like. She’s brilliant and funny and employed and broke. (Sounds familiar, right??) She told me that under federal guidelines, our jobs as full-time employees of a public university qualify us for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. It’s kind of like Northern Exposure, where Joel gets med school paid for when he agrees to work in Alaska for a few years, but in this case, PSLF qualifies any full-time public employee to write off whatever remains of their student loans after 120 on-time loan payments.
Doing a little math, you can see that for anyone with a lot of student loan debt, this is a really, really good thing. For me, personally, depending on what my monthly loan payments end up being, this plan could save me anywhere from $60,000 – $90,000.
Let that sink in for a second.
And then imagine my thought process.
Yay!! OMG LOAN FREE IN TEN YEARS, BITCHES! I AM DOING THAT. I’m definitely doing that. Which means I have to stay in this job for ten years.
No matter what.
Forever. (Well, for ten years, but still.)
There’s really no other job — unless it was a comparatively paying, full-time, public service loan forgiveness qualifying job — that would make it worthwhile to quit this job until I fulfill this requirement and get the monkey off my back.
This loan forgiveness thing is a bit of a golden handcuffs. It’s extremely exciting to think that I might be student loan debt-free at age 42 instead of age never. But it changes any discussion of the future. It raises the bar for any competing jobs, any life changes, because the incentive to stay in this job is now so high that I can’t imagine much else competing with it.
The good news is that I like this job, I like my colleagues, I love the students, and I can imagine being here for that long and even being HAPPY. But it is strange to move from a position of freely accepting and taking on this job by choice, and now feeling an external force powerfully compelling me to keep it. It raises the stakes, in a good way, but in a way that’s a bit stressful too (I really need to not fuck this up. Which I won’t. But still.).
This is just one more way that debt in general, but massive amounts of student loan debt in specific, becomes the albatross around our neck in ways we can’t foresee (and are encouraged to actively ignore) in grad school. It might make a deeply indebted grad student stay in a crappy position, or in a crappy location, longer than they would otherwise. It might make a grad’s dreams of eventually becoming a freelance writer or business owner get pushed back much further. It might make a grad student stay quiet about a problem because they don’t want to risk a job. I’m not saying this is the fault of the amazing public service forgiveness program; I’m saying it’s an unforeseen consequence of taking on loads of debt. Debt changes the landscape of your dreams in ways you just can’t comprehend when you are biting your nails for that loan refund to hit because August and September are the worst for grad students, amirite? But in five years when you get the mostly worthless PhD and start your entry level, non-academic position and realize that, yeah, you’re 38 and starting at the bottom rung and pretty much HAVE to stay here (wherever here is) for 10 years? It’s a bit of a bummer. It takes the shine off a little. And many of the advisers here are counting down their 10 years to student loan freedom.
I’m grateful for my job, and grateful for this opportunity that definitely means good things for my financial future. But I’m still adding up all the ways that debt closes doors or opportunity for my life and will continue to do so until it’s gone. Buyer beware.