College Debt Forgiveness

I find the debate about the hinted-at college debt forgiveness to be maddening because most of the people who participate have absolutely no knowledge of the subject.

The usual old fat canards about PhDs in the Humanities that make people go into debt are getting rolled out, and it’s exhausting.

PhDs in the Humanities don’t cost you anything. I was paid ≈ $250,000 overall in stipend and medical insurance plus a tuition waiver by my University to do a PhD with them. And I’m not a special case. That’s 100% of people I know, including my husband with a PhD in Math and Stats from a very fancy school. It’s how it works.

I’m sure there are unusual human beings who managed somehow to get into debt in this setup but they are an exception.

[Here’s the point where somebody invariably pipes up with a comment about the medical school as if I didn’t lead with the words “PhDs” and “Humanities.”]

I’m not even expressing an opinion on debt forgiveness. What I don’t understand is why people who don’t even know such basic things feel the need to have one.

Another annoying argument is about the “overpaid professors in the Humanities.” Again, I’m sure there are a few. But the majority are anything but. My starting salary when I got here was $42,000. And we had a salary freeze for years after that. Plus, we had no medical insurance for over a year. That’s hardly great riches. If college is overpriced, it’s not the professors who are eating the money.

I could tell you what the real problem with college debt is. It’s that very VERY many people are tricked into going to college who have zero chance of graduating. They get admitted, take out loans, fail, and end up saddled with the debt and with nothing to show for it. They can never make the money to pay it back. That’s the real problem. That’s the scam.

New ways are constantly manufactured to create more of these victims. Removing SATs as an admission criterion is one of them. Another one is making it a professional suicide for a professor to mention that many students are never going to be successful in [insert whatever subject] because they don’t have the aptitude for it. It’s like telling somebody who’s 5’4 that for a low low price of [insert tuition cost] you will get him to play for the NBA. And all of the nice, well-meaning professors who are terrified of the words “intelligence” and “aptitude,” let alone “talent,” are abetting the scammers.

This is what I want to talk about. Let’s discuss how to avoid doing this to more and more young people. And yes, let’s definitely reimburse the victims of the scam. But only after we’ve done something to stop creating more victims. Let’s not throw money into a joke that we keep digging. Let’s fill it up first.

18 thoughts on “College Debt Forgiveness”

  1. Lots of grad students in Ph.D. programs in the Humanities do not get such generous funding. I think the key phrase in your post is “very fancy school”–these are the universities that provide great funding packages because they have lots of money.


    1. OK, do you really know people who paid tuition for a PhD?

      I know people from all sorts of schools. Nobody ever paid tuition. Stipends can differ or not exist but that’s nothing to do with college loans.


      1. Near as I can tell, people in the humanities work as teaching assistants (or occasionally research assistants) while doing their PhD and get tuition, insurance, and a small stipend in return. It works pretty much the same in STEM, except there are more fellowships (NSF, various other agencies) and the proportion of research assistantships is greater as faculty raise grants for that. But yeah, I don’t know anyone who’s paid for their PhD.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. No, students don’t pay tuition. But some stipends are so low that they don’t cover the cost of living, and these students sometimes/often take out loans to cover their living expenses.


  2. Times have changed:

    When I attended my state’s medical school as an in-state resident over 50 years ago, I was guaranteed admission (by my undergraduate college grade scores), and the medical school tuition was VERY low by today’s standards.

    While I was a medical student, I worked a three-overnights-a-week part time job at a local hospital as an “extern” (start IV injections, get up at 3 a.m. to examine complaining patients before calling their private doctor, etc.) and earned enough income to pay my way that when I graduated as a doctor in 1970, my total student debt was less than $2,000.

    After graduation, it took me about six months to pay it all off.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “Another one is making it a professional suicide for a professor to mention that many students are never going to be successful in [insert whatever subject] because they don’t have the aptitude for it.”

    “I could tell you what the real problem with college debt is. It’s that very VERY many people are tricked into going to college who have zero chance of graduating.”

    Yep and yep. And we’re all supposed to pretend it’s not true. There’s no talent, no aptitude, no motivation, no work habits. Success comes out of thin air, summoned by soft chanting of ultraprogressive slogans. Nobody should be told not to do something boneheaded, because hurting their feelings is worse than letting them face lifelong financial ruin.


  4. Found this wonderful post about the ongoing destruction of the middle class. Turns out some others have also noticed things you mentioned. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Russian blogger understanding things that evade many people living in USA. Pity the text is in Russian and most readers won’t be able to read it:

    Удар по среднему классу!

    Will translate this since he points out the pre-covid realities which made the present possible:

    “… the more global changes that a significant reduction in the middle class can bring us … there is a great risk for a significant reduction in civil rights and freedoms around the world. Perhaps we are heading towards a new form of dictatorship.

    Perhaps this will be the inevitable result of the growing stratification in the income of the population, which has been going on in recent years. As much as we would like to deceive ourselves, it seems impossible to really maintain equality of rights among people whose incomes differ thousands of times. The difference will be not only in consumption, but also in the presence of freedom, in the presence of privacy of personal life, independence. It seems that we are moving into a world in which some freedoms, rights, as well as independence, which was enjoyed not only by the richest people, but also by the middle class and even to some extent by wider strata of the population in developed countries, will again become the privilege of the richest people. At least, the share of others will decline. With one blow, the percentage of the bourgeois class will not be drastically reduced. The problem is that we do not know how many such attacks may be delivered in the future.”


  5. In my experience and to my (explicit) knowledge, some universities in the Western world are run according to practically Hollywood accounting.


  6. It’s amazing how many people do not know they should not pay tuition in graduate school (you do have to in professional school). They are amazed when I tell them that if they haven’t gotten an assistantship that includes a tuition waiver they should not go, it’s a sign they aren’t really supported, and there will be other kinds of academic and moral support they won’t get.

    However, around here, the last 30 years, graduate students with assistantships have also had to take loans. The stipend just isn’t enough to make it. And a lot of the undergraduates with loans are in fact good students, although we do have a number of state scholarships that rescue people from that. Still, the key to all of this is to cut tuition. Life in general is still excessively expensive but cutting tuition would help a lot.

    Another key is the pressure to pass undergraduates. We have to pay for every F or W we give, and students have to pay if they do not graduate in 4 years — per legislative fiat (there’s a complicated formula for this, I am oversimplifying). This whole situation now, where we need them to exist and they need high grades to stay, is maddening. In the past we had remedial courses for those who needed them, and could fail people, because failing them and sending them to non-credit courses wouldn’t send them to the poorhouse, they could realistically do these things.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s the other side of the diseased situation I’m describing. The grade inflation, trying to push people through as fast as possible. There is a big defect in the whole system but people who are talking about the subject have no idea how it really works.


  7. I’ve probably recommended it here before, but if you haven’t read Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, you might check it out.

    It’s amazing how shameless the anonymous (the authors simply call it “Midwestern State”) university in question is about creating “party track” majors whos only purpose is to be as unchallenging as possible so students are guaranteed to graduate.

    One detail that stuck with me was how the university has 2 business majors. One, housed in the Business School, is a serious program with a good reputation among employers and recruiters, and its graduates generally get good jobs. The other, located in the School of Arts and Sciences, is a joke that anyone with a pulse can make it through. Employers all know this and its graduates have lousy employment outcomes. Unwary students, especially first generation ones who don’t have anyone in the know to advise them, enter the A&S business major thinking that they’re making a sensible decision, and end up with a mostly useless degree.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My university seems to be doing this in Business based on the ones who wander through my gen ed courses. Students in traditional Business majors like accounting, finance, and marketing all seem to be pretty smart and on the ball. The students enrolled in newer business degrees like Entrepreneurship and Sports Management are generally not that sharp and don’t seem to have realistic goals. Every single Sports Management student I’ve ever talked to has told me that his (they are all men) career goal is to get a job working for one of the major sports teams in a nearby major city. They are graduating enough students from that program every year to staff half of the major sports teams in the country, I’d be surprised if one in a hundred ever winds up working for a major sports team.


  8. But… if we released all these flunkies into the workforce at 18, how then would bright kids with useless degrees compete in the job market, with their same-age compatriots who now have 4-7+ years of useful job experience?


  9. I agree about PhDs, I hardly know anyone with a PhD who wasn’t fully funded with some combination TA-ships, Research Assistantships, fellowships, and tuition waivers.

    I think some of the biggest debt traps are Masters degrees that lead into low paid careers or extremely competitive job markets. People can take on large amounts of debt for things MFAs in Creative Writing and Studio Art, MAs in Journalism, MSWs in Social Work, and MAs in Library Science. Most jobs in those fields just don’t pay enough if you have to take on a large amount of debt to get the degree. Law School can also be a debt trap for some. Top law firms can pay really high wages, but those jobs are super competitive and plenty of Law graduates wind up in jobs that don’t really pay enough to service the debt. I personally know several people who made it through undergrad with little or no debt, who then borrowed a bunch for a Master’s degree or Law school.

    I’m not totally opposed to student loan debt relief, but I really hope that it is paired with some very firm caps on student loan amounts. I’ve read stories of students graduating with $70-100k in debt for Bachelor’s degrees and those kinds of numbers should never be allowed.


  10. If the subject were corporate raiders, borrowing money on assets to force a buyout, then breaking up the company and making off with the money, it would look similar to this.
    The Gov’t backs education assistance loan programs and colleges and universities rush to match up a degree program to take advantage of the windfall. Good money if you can swing it.
    All that is left to do is find the marks that funnel the monies into the coffer. Young people seeing adulthood coming at them are pretty easy marks.
    And well, it is “gov’t backed”, so yeah – lets not blame the marks for being so easy to trick.
    We’ll just have the adults in the room pay for the party.


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