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Student Debt Diary: Wait, What was the ROI on my Education?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t have a problem with my Ph.D. I have a problem with how I paid for it.

I wasn’t the brightest light in a constellation of doctoral candidates that pursued a “life of the mind.” In other words, I didn’t get the full-ride scholarship. And, life is a lot more expensive when you don’t get the scholarship.

Confronted with the cost of graduate school, I signed promissory notes for Stafford subsidized and unsubsidized Loans until my pen ran out of ink. “This life of the mind requires my full attention,” I told myself. “Let me throw off the shackles of responsibility! Let me be free now and borrow my way through tuition and living expenses!”

I wasn’t alone, either. There were quite a few fresh-faced graduate students in my class with zero assets and a lot of ambition. It seemed to me, anyway, that even if I didn’t understand compound interest, a student loan was a good and noble financial tool.

But, was it a noble financial decision?

I.

In The Marketplace of Ideas (W.W. Norton, 2010), Louis Menand argues that over the last 40 years, the demand for Ph.D.s has been eclipsed by the supply of Ph.D.s. Still more, he says, the persistent dearth of teaching jobs, for which Ph.D.s are narrowly and expensively trained, casts a piercing light on the intrinsic value of a doctorate. Central to his argument is the sheer insanity that an English (or any humanities-based) Ph.D. takes, on average, longer to complete than a medical degree (and residency) or a law degree.

My own time in graduate school as an out-of-state student at a top public research university clocked in short of the nine year average. For me, it was three for required coursework and four years of research and writing.

But, I was not a swifter or smarter wunderkind than my colleagues (some of whom are still enrolled, a decade later). I just couldn’t shake the creeping sense that spending money I didn’t have was going to end poorly. And, to Menand’s point, I sensed that I was gambling for a big win—in the form of a tenure-track teaching job—when the odds were so profoundly and obviously not in my favor.

For the third and last year of coursework, before embarking on dedicated research, I finally got a break in the form of “tuition remission.” I still had to cover living expenses, even if the university excused my tab for enrollment. Like a junkie, I went back and secured another loan to cover those expenses. Rent aside, I could continue to feed myself Ramen noodles—a cliché that continues to be cute shorthand for school-induced poverty. Like most clichés, there’s an element of beef-flavored truthiness to it, which didn’t seem cute at the time.

But, the $50,000 I racked up over three years seemed like a good deal, and still does. It remains firmly in the “win” column today, because it represents the cost one sort of academic accomplishment and the fact that I shouldered that particular debt on my own. I also got out of the endless cycle of whoring for graduate research fellowships and agreeing to slave-wage teaching obligations early by taking a magazine editor’s job while I finished the research and writing phase of my degree.

Besides, I was surrounded by plenty of talented and focused colleagues who were qualified (in spades) for the rigors of research fellowships and teaching. All of us carry similar debt loads, but each of us got something distinctly different out of our experiences.

There’s not much that troubles me about my end game with that degree, except one thing: the incalculable aspects my debt.

If I had gone to work when I was 23 instead of 27, what would I have earned in salary and retirement benefits in that time? How much would I have saved in those years? Would a graduate degree in something I had little chance of practicing translate into some other trade skill?

II.

After that final year of coursework, my shipmates and I effectively jumped ship. Our debts secured in “deferral” or engaged in repayment, we all reached a financial reckoning. The bright lights continued to plumb the depths of their research, teaching undergraduates on the side, and became better scholars and instructors for their sacrifices. A very, very small number of them teach today, doing precisely what they were trained to do, at decent colleges and universities around the country. Some of them took positions with government or municipal agencies in big cities.

But, each of us took the balance of our individual debts to private companies (who routinely sell that debt to other private companies) or to the government. Like a lot of people, I started out having my Stafford loans serviced by private companies and ended up consolidating with the U.S. Department of Education (whose customer service remains, in my mind, superior to any private company out there).

But, six years ago, having started a career as a magazine editor and writer, I could no longer defer my consolidated loans, the collective principal of which remained high (all the while accruing interest during my deferment period). The barbarians had smashed the gate with IOUs, and I had to pay them back.

At that moment, the concept of value ceased to be an abstraction. It was a real concept now, underlined, italicized, highlighted and set apart from whatever narrative I had created about my decision to attend graduate school—and I felt like a complete fool. Not because I chose school over work in those years, but because I failed, until that moment, to see school as a line item in the budget of my life. It had been, instead, everything—an identity, an activity and the center of my daily efforts. But, in the end, it was a stone-cold investment.

Ideally, a return-on-investment ought to be a calculated risk: gain minus cost, divided by cost, rendered as ratio. But, I couldn’t—and still can’t—map the ROI of my $50,000 tab. Is the so-called “gain” every penny I’ve made since taking my first job—only tangentially related to my terminal degree? Does that gain include hundreds of pounds of books moldering on my shelves? Does it also, as I suspect, include “stuff” I learned while in school? And, what, precisely, is the quantitative value of that?

As for cost, does that only include the money I borrowed for tuition and living expenses? Or, does it also include potential, if unearned, income in the years I spent in school? Could it also include the rental deposits paid to (and never returned from) shady slumlords in my university town?

Even an algorithm seems incapable of rendering a true ratio based on that line of questioning.

In the end, I’m not sure I could find the ROI of my advanced degrees. They sure feel like investments—but, I’m also sure that another class of investment exists—outside of calculated risk, initial cost and potential benefit. Call it an investment in self (which sounds too much like a spa treatment), or call it an investment in a future self (which sounds too much like the pitch for a webinar).

It’s something, and some things, perhaps, are best left incalculable.

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