Student Loan Fury in the Occupy Movement

Young people in the U.S. now recognize that the university has become part of a ponzi scheme designed to place on students an unconscionable amount of debt while subjecting them under the power of commanding financial institutions for years after they graduate. Under this economic model of subservience, there is no future for young people. 

Henry Giroux, Casino Capitalism and Higher Education, CounterPunch, October 31, 2011

“Students Ought Not Be a Means of Profit,” Nate Grant scrawled on a cardboard sign as he sat cross-legged on a wall at the Occupy Wall Street encampment (Baum 2011). Grant, 22, was an English major. 

Anthropology students know this grievance well. But universities do not highlight the issue in such stark terms. The media sometimes comes closer.

Patrick Buehler, 20, is a case in point. In an October 9 Pittsburg Post-Gazette article, Buehler revealed that, as a junior in anthropology, he currently holds $60,000 in debt and expects to owe $80,000 upon graduation. “I’ve wondered if going to college is still worth it. Will I be able to pay back all those loans?” (Grant 2011)

Not if he’s anthropologist David Cook.

PBS Newshour found Cook in Colorado washing trash cans, at $9 an hour, to support his wife and young son. Together with his wife they owe $60,000 in student loans. Two years after receiving a B.A. from Georgia State University, Cook was profiled on the December 3, 2010 broadcast. “I don’t want to seem ungrateful,” he told PBS, “I just feel like I devoted years of my life and thousands of dollars into developing specialized skills that I’m not using (Solman 2010).”

“Between 2000 and 2009, earnings for grads with just a bachelor’s degree fell by 15 percent. Yet public college tuitions rose 63 percent,” PBS noted (Solman 2010).

Why then, they seem to be asking, would anyone be so crazy as to major in English or anthropology?

It’s not just a question for students studying “the science of man.” In 1960 relatively few graduates had student loans to speak of. Today over 70 million Americans have them. The total U.S. student loan debt will exceed a trillion dollars for the first time this year, going beyond credit card debt, according to USA Today (2011). Banks engage in the same kinds of predatory lending with students as they performed with desperate mortgage seekers when they dispensed liar’s loans with great zeal. That helped trigger the Financial Meltdown of 2008. As is now well known, the state bailed out the banks but abandoned the debtors. Overwhelmed, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in the Occupation Movement. It’s a kind of festival of public pedagogy where youth are performing the educational work that academics have long ignored.

Some government officials are listening, even if they are taking away the wrong message.

“We don’t need . . . .more anthropologists in this state”

On October 10, Florida Governor Rick Scott threatened to move state funding away from the liberal arts and into more “practical fields.” The Republican asked, “You want to use your tax dollars to educate more people who can’t get jobs in anthropology?”

Scott argued specifically that something like anthropology was not worthy of public support “because, you know, we don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on. Those type of degrees. So when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

Official response was immediate. In an October 11 letter, AAA President Virginia Dominguez wrote that it “was very unfortunate that you would characterize our discipline in such a short-sighted way,” and asked to meet with him. Meanwhile students at the University of South Florida responded with a web Prezi (a zoomable canvas presentation) called “This is Anthropology,” featuring student work investigating homicides, protecting groundwater and improving medical care. Brent Weisman, the department chair, responded with a letter to the St. Petersburg Times that said, “Anthropologists at USF work side by side with civil and industrial engineers, cancer researchers, specialists in public health and medicine, chemists, biologists, and others in the science, technology, and engineering fields that the Governor so eagerly applauds (Melendez 2011).”

These responses were timely. But collectively, a much more critical approach is called for. We need a frank defense of higher education, and anthropology, as civic guardians against Scott’s version of market fundamentalism whereby “institutions [like universities] that were meant to limit human suffering and misfortune [and to] protect the public from the excesses of the market have either been weakened or abolished,” (Giroux 2011b:1). Scott has proposed slashing Medicaid by almost $4 billion, laying off 6,700 employees, cutting education by $4.8 billion and phasing out the corporate income tax entirely. Anthropology is valuable as a public good and a site of social struggle against Scott’s version of higher education as a lynchpin in the global economy.

The response must take on “the most oppressive debt in U.S. history” directly (Collinge 2009). It’s not students’ fault but the fault of neoliberal policies promoted by Scott and his allies. We need to convert private pain into a public issue, not relegate it to the shadows, in shame. Curiously, I could find no local reporter — in the midst of this national story — who asked about University of South Florida’s debt loads for anthropology students. It’s a fair question.

It was a question asked by a New York reporter, Amanda Fairbanks, inadvertently. Writing in the Huffington Post on November 2, Fairbanks found Erik de Jesus, a junior at the University of South Florida protesting on Occupy Wall Street. She noted that de Jesus expects to have $40,000 in student loan debt come graduation day. “Tuition is going up and the quality of education isn’t getting better,” he told Fairbanks, “I see this as an opportunity to do something about it.”

It is fitting that a USF student travelled to New York for the protest. Other USF students likely joined him. In fact, the OWS is being led, in part, by an anthropologist, David Graeber. Graeber has coincidentally just written a spellbinding book on debt (Graeber 2011). He was the subject of an interview with Amy Goodman on OWS’s meanings and purposes. He’s asking for debt forgiveness for America’s poor (Goodman 2011).

It turns out that Governor Scott’s daughter, Jordan Kandah, received her BA degree in anthropology from Virginia’s College of William & Mary. It is unlikely that Kandah has any significant student debt, given her background. We do not know much about her dinner table conversations with her father, but we do know that after working as a special education teacher for a brief spell she enrolled this fall in a Masters of Business Administration program in San Francisco. An anthropology education will likely enhance her critical capacities on the job. But will it lead her to the Occupy San Francisco movement down the street? What does Kandah herself think of the value of the anthropology experience? An interview with her is called for.

“What the ruling class wants are technicians” 

What kinds of jobs are BA, MA and Ph.D. graduates getting?  What are their debt burdens? We do not have good longitudinal research (including a randomized survey sample) on this topic. However, in 2009, the AAA conducted the first of its kind (non-randomized) survey of M.A. graduates in anthropology to evaluate their job success, among other variables. There were 758 respondents. Over 75% strongly or somewhat agreed that their degree plays a significant role in their overall career satisfaction.

This initiative is important. Future research should query randomized samples of graduates and be supplemented with structured interviews. Everyone should be asked about their debt burdens. And, following de Jesus and Graeber respondents should be asked questions about how the larger culture of neoliberalism constrains their professional duties on the job. As Henry Giroux points out, with only 27% of faculty on a tenure track or full time position, faculty are contingent and able to be fired at will. “When coupled with right wing attacks. . .many non-tenured faculty begin to censor themselves in their classes (Giroux 2011b).”

Survey respondents might be asked about the plague of censorship and self-censorship in their jobs as adjunct professors, government workers or consultants (Nocella 2010).

This point is of enormous import. Activism (broadly defined) is the sine qua non of anthropology in this neoliberal age. As Robert Lawless puts it, ” The last thing the current ruling class wants is a group of people trained to think critically, i.e., question the structure and conventions propagated by the ruling classes. . . .what the ruling class wants are technicians. ”

“When practiced properly,” David Price reminds us, “anthropology is a threatening science (Price 2004:29).” It doesn’t always pay well. In fact Graeber is doing his present job with OWS for free. It is notable that Graeber was fired from Yale’s anthropology department, in part, because of his activism.

Anthropologists Speak their Minds (with Pseudonym Protection)

Victims of Neoliberalism

[The bankers have succeeded] in transforming a huge majority of men and women, old and young, into a race of debtors . . . [debtors] experience the horrors of misery and indignity. . .the terror of being excluded and condemned to ‘social redundancy’ and otherwise consigned to being human waste.”

Zygmunt Bauman, Living on Borrowed Time (2010:20)

John Smith (a pseudonym, as are all below) is an adjunct professor at a Southern University and owes $125,000 total for his three degrees: BA, MA, and PHD in anthropology.

“I’ve been able to get them on a reduced payment from the $1700 per month that I was supposed to pay to $151 a month based on my low income,” he told me. “I am being paid an adjunct wage of $3000 per class. ‘There just isn’t any money to pay you more than this.’ I am told. At four classes per semester that comes to $24,000 per year. At this rate, I am saddled with debt that I will never pay off. I can’t qualify for a home, or additional credit card. Haven’t tried to get a new vehicle, but I’ve driven my truck for 14 years.”

“I knew academia would be tough, but who would have guessed that I would be making less than my 20 year-old nephew with a GED who services the interior of commercial aircraft and makes $32,000 per year? I’m completely beside myself. I’ve taken another job as a research assistant to make ends meet, but it inhibits my ability to research and write my own work. Of course, with no publications and no time to write, I’m not a very good candidate for other positions elsewhere. It’s a catch 22 that has me very, very distressed. Quite honestly, I feel totally exploited, which is ironic since I teach about the exploitative nature of globalization and the neoliberal model. I feel like an idiot for thinking that I could get a living wage as an anthropologist.”

First in her Family to get a Ph.D.

Her family Has no Money

Another anthropologist, Elizabeth Beeker, is a graduate student about to defend her dissertation.

“I have at least $75,000 worth of school debt from undergraduate, a post-bacc, and graduate school. I think with the undergraduate and post-bacc I had no idea what I was getting into. After, I couldn’t repay because I wasn’t making enough money. I think the amount so much more than the base amount I borrowed because of compounding interest rates.! If we could get rid of compounding interest rates that would be a big help. I didn’t borrow much for grad school, but I did borrow some.

“I’m terrified of the debt. It often keeps me up at night thinking about it. I don’t make enough now as a part-time lecturer to pay the debt and I’m just about to defend. I’m terrified about not getting a job that pays enough. . . .I’m worried about being able to buy a house and care for my daughter with this debt and in this economy.

She adds an important class perspective. “My family has no money. I’ll be the first person to get a Ph.D. But I’ve had no family help for school expenses. My undergrad was paid for by some scholarships, but mostly school loans. I didn’t think it would be a big deal or didn’t envision I would have problems paying it back. I see other grad students who have family help. So if we were both making 1,250 a month as a TA or RA or something, they could actually get their needs met because they had supplemental income. Whereas I was unable to.”

Her testimony highlights how working class students are being filtered out of anthropology. As Bauman underscores, “In the last eight years. . .the overall debt of college students, the future political, economic and spiritual elite of the nation, doubled. Students have been forced/encouraged to live on credit – to spend money which at best they might hope to earn many years later. . .The training in the art of ‘living in debt’, and living in debt permanently, has been incorporated into the curriculum of national education.”

Living with Her Parents

“I’m personally sitting on nearly $70K in student loan debt.” Mary Guilford told me. “My undergraduate degrees are in Anthropology and Political Science, and I received a recent Master’s Degree in Social Planning. I blame myself as much as my degree choices for now being unemployed, unemployable, and desperate for anything I can get. It seems a bachelors degree in anthropology in the U.S. gets you very little, other than qualified to work with people in some capacity. Trying to explain it to potential employers is an entirely different nightmare. They recognize the human aspect but not the intricacies that an anthropology degree gives you. Nor does it seem that the U.S. truly respects the degree, as everything is so market driven economics, that the human aspect goes untouched unless it is included in some way to make more money.”

“Now I sit with an advanced degree, a desire to help shape and change my communities, a debt burden so large that I am living with my parents who survive on one income and have serious health problems, unable to contribute to their household, or even my own well-being. I chose anthropology in the hopes that I would someday be able to make a significant contribution to my fellow man whether it be via research or community development work . . . . Social programs in the United States keep getting thrown to the wolves and set on the back-burner until the day comes when they are finally recognized as the heart and soul of the government, communities and society. Until then I sit daily at my local coffee shop with a $1.50 endless coffee cup, applying for season retail positions, temporary administrative work, and applying overseas to any company I can think of who would be interested in someone [like me].”

“It’s ironic that I went to college in order to make a difference in this world we live and instead am sitting here writing about my plight. Suffering blow after blow to my ego, my wallet and my family.”

No Children in Their Future?

Christina Stewart is currently in graduate school getting her Ph.D. in archaeology.

“My husband and I fell in love in middle school (believe it or not!) and have been together for fourteen years. We married right out of high school and started college together. We grew up in rural [Southern Midwest], in quite poor families. Though I was the valedictorian of my class and my husband was historian of his class, scholarships were minimal and rare. We worked full-time or part-time jobs while we were in college, but the money we made was never enough. We had to take out loans to help cover our costs.”

“Then I got sick. We had no insurance, for we couldn’t afford it on our income. And the prescription costs and medical bills were piling up. We took out private student loans to help pay for these bills and the tuition and books and other costs that were putting us in the hole, not realizing at the time that after we had signed the papers for the loans, promising to pay for them, that the origination fee for these loans was around 100% of the cost of the loan. So, a loan that originally cost $10,000 without interest ended up costing us $20,000, still without interest taken into account. And there was nothing we could do about it.”

So, now that I am in graduate school, and I am still having to take out student loans just to get by in graduate school and help pay back these private student loans I took out as an undergraduate (yes, using loans to pay back loans, for there is no other way), my student loan debt is well over $100,000 and so is my husband’s. We see no hope for the future. No promise of children. Vacations. Retirement. It’s just not in our future.”

Widening the Lens

No longer seen as a public good or a site of social struggle, higher education is increasingly viewed as a credential mill for success in the global economy.

Henry Giroux (2011b:12)

Anthropologists must reflect hard on Henry Giroux’s challenge to “take back higher education.”  The discipline cannot fall into the neoliberal trap, laid out by Florida Governor Richard Scott, of justifying anthropology in terms of its value in market terms. Indeed, too many jobs serve the very pernicious social order that is driving the public sphere and social state into ruin.

And yet, a job is life.

Clearly then, many questions are left unanswered about the job/loan dialectic for de Jesus and platoons of other anthropology students across the country. And for us all. I asked a recent undergraduate anthropology class of 32 students and found that about 70% expected debts over $20,000. This included two students anticipating debts over $30,000 and one over $40,000. We do not have a good accounting of the total debt load within anthropology. We need it.

We must fight to release students and professors (how many are still in deep debt?) from this  burden. Tamara Draut, author of Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30- Somethings Can’t Get Ahead (Draut 2006) asks, “How can the government justify charging students nearly 7 percent while it charges the banks nothing (Draut 2011)?”

Universities were once viewed as laboratories for free inquiry and debate. Today they are under siege from privatizers, ideologues, anxious college administrators.  . .and the banks.

It’s time to return universities to faculty. And it’s time to provide our youth with a fresh start in life, unburdened by debt peonage to Wall Street.

Brian McKenna lives in Michigan. He can be reached

A version of this article was originally published in the Society for Applied Anthropology Newsletter, Vol. 22:4, November 2011. Tim Wallace, editor. 


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Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at