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‘Highly Educated Paupers’

For many young scholars, exorbitant student loan debt can mean a lifetime of hardship.

The times, they are a changing. So much so that, if the current economic downturn continues, with its attendant credit freeze — coupled with the rapid inflation of college tuition and dwindling Pell Grants — this country may see a return to the days when the vast majority of Americans were unable to attend college. As well, an undeniable and unthinkable consequence of this would be less diversity in university classrooms, both in the student ranks and at the faculty podium.

Case in point, had grants and, to a larger extent, student loans, not been available to this writer, even an associate degree would have been an impossible dream, let alone a doctorate. Indeed, defending my dissertation during the summer of 2001 was one of my greatest accomplishments.

I had fought the good fight and lived to talk about it. Ready to take on the world, I embarked upon my academic career in New York City. My first dose of reality was when I absorbed the starting annual salaries for new academicians: anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000. Senior faculty can earn six-figure salaries, but make no mistake, the trek from assistant professor to full professor is long and arduous.

And few ever reach the ranks of college or university president, nearly one-third of whom earn more than $500,000 annually, according to a survey recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Meanwhile, many young scholars are confronted with crippling student loan debt. This may not be the case for alumni of private institutions, with their small annual doctoral crops, and where most if not all of the students are fully funded. But graduates of large public university systems — with larger annual admission rates — have usually had to depend upon student loans, mostly unsubsidized.

As a proud graduate of Temple University’s world-renowned Department of African American Studies, mine is the latter scenario. Consequently, the years since graduation have provided an unanticipated postdoctoral education, which I would just as soon have forgone. Indeed, I have become an expert on the long-term consequences of large student loan debt.

Sure, I had prior knowledge of the pay scale and the hierarchy for academics, but I figured that there would be many avenues for supplemental income, like writing, consulting, etc. Boy, was I in for a rude awakening! The truth is that few scholars garner lucrative publishing deals, and the consultancies come only with time.

Of course there are the exceptions, like President- elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, who were famously able to retire their student loan debt after becoming millionaires from the proceeds of his best-selling memoirs. But they are the exceptions, much like the success stories presented in weight loss advertisements, with the following disclaimer in fine print: Results are not typical.

Far too many professors, for the duration, do the student loan dance. That is, defer as long as possible, after which forbearance becomes the only option, all the while the interest continues to compound — and the total grows exponentially. And since bankruptcy discharge is all but impossible, the debt is life-long, till death do you part.

Thus, it is not unusual to hear more than a few Ph.D.’s lament their plight as highly educated paupers. And the ramifications are numerous, a few of which are laid out below.

• As a result of an undesirable debt/income ratio, credit scores take a major hit.

• Mortgages and other major purchases are difficult. See first bullet for details.

• Security clearances for high-level employment, like government positions in the new Obama administration, are next to impossible. See first bullet for details.

• Marriage prospects can dwindle. See first bullet for details.

In case my point is still not clear, student loan debt, with its cascading complexities, can mean a lifetime of hardship. Still, given the chance, I would not trade my education; however, at every opportunity I counsel my students to be more vigilant in applying for external funding, or to seek employment with tuition benefits, which some more fortunate professional students are able to do, defraying educational costs.

In the final analysis, and having said all this, a world without student loans is unthinkable. This is one of the many reasons why the recent government bail-out of the financial sector has to work, in the process preserving the student loan option — and campus diversity.

All the same, there should be even more strident warnings given to students and parents as they sign those promissory notes, often signing away their credit ratings for a lifetime. Lest they too find themselves whimsically wishing for a personal bail-out from an ever-growing student loan total.

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is an assistant professor of English and African-American literature at Virginia State University.

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