With the 2020 Presidential election ramping up, the Democratic candidates for president have been throwing around a number of different policy proposals. While my passion is primarily around war, military, veteran, and foreign policy, another important policy position that I am constantly thinking about is tied to higher education, specifically around loan forgiveness. First was Elizabeth Warren with her proposal to forgive up to $50,000 worth of student loans. While I thought this was a good idea, I still didn’t feel it went far enough. Then in the past week Bernie Sanders came out with a call for complete loan forgiveness, which is what I am all in for. Let me tell you why…
In 2001, I in part joined the military to get money for college. I had spent the year before in college at Mesa State and had racked up about $15,000 worth of student loan debt. But in that year I had realized that I wasn’t ready for college, but I knew that someday I did want to return to school. So I decided to join the military, where they said I wouldn’t have to worry about paying for college once I got out. Because I was in the military the loans were deferred. I paid into the GI Bill which was $100 out of my paycheck for the first year of service, which would then "pay for college" once I was out of the military.
Fast forward to exiting the military. I left the military angry and confused about my service and wanted to better understand what I had just been through over the past four years, so I returned to school. I was able to utilize the GI Bill, but it was the "old GI Bill," which basically gave me a stipend every month, but it didn’t actually cover tuition, so I took out just enough to cover my tuition, and lived off the stipend, while also working a couple of jobs since the GI Bill only covered a portion of what living in Fort Collins actually costs. This put me at about $50,000 by the time I finished my BA in Political Science and Sociology.
Toward the end of my BA they were switching from the old GI Bill to the New GI Bill, which not only covered the cost of tuition, but also provided a monthly stipend, as well as a book and supplies stipend. Because I had already started on the old GI Bill, I was given the option, switch to the New GI Bill with one year left of my BA, and then all of my benefits would be finished, OR, finish my BA with the old GI Bill and get one year of the New GI Bill for when I get my masters degree, so needless to say I chose the latter since I wanted to continue my education. So the first year of my MA was completely covered and I received a living stipend which was nice. But my second year I had to be completely reliant upon student loans. I knew that I would be continuing on to a PhD program in either Hawaii or California, where there is a much higher cost of living so I took out a bit more money and sat on it for when I would move. I ended up getting into the University of Hawaii to get a PhD in Political Science, though because of a decrease in the funding of PhD programs across the US, I would have to pay for this and I was an out-of-state student so the cost was quite exorbitant. After my first year in Hawaii I was able to apply for in-state tuition, which definitely helped however I still needed to take out loans no matter what grants and awards I was taking in order to focus upon my PhD.
There were many people in my program who didn’t take out loans (or at least smaller amounts than me), worked 2-3 jobs, and slowly worked on their PhD; to which, many who took this route took many more years for them to complete their PhD, some still have not. I on the other hand wanted to intensively focus on my studies so I didn’t work, besides teaching a few classes which only enriched my studies, but I wanted to finish my coursework as quickly as possible so I could move back to the mainland and start working on my dissertation. I spent two years in Hawaii, then it took me another two years to complete my dissertation and earn a PhD. So after all was said and done I had accumulated $150,000 worth of student loan debt.
I had justified the debt with the idea that I wouldn’t have a problem finding a tenure track position at a school where I would start anywhere between 50-75k annually, and then I would be able to start paying off these loans. Unfortunately, tenure track positions have become harder and harder to find. Why? Well since the 2008 financial crisis many people decided to go back to school, this in turn has led to a huge surplus of people with PhDs on the market that I have to compete with. Couple this with the fact that because many who were about to retire had their pensions and savings effected decided not to retire there were less positions available. Then to make matters even worse, many universities are shifting their cultures, and instead of offering tenure track positions more and more of the classes being taught by adjunct faculty, which are paid at a fraction of the cost. So finding a job became very difficult.
In 2014, while finishing my dissertation, I was invited back to my BA & MA alma matter Colorado State University to teach a few courses for the Ethnic Studies department, some focused on my work around war and militarism, some department courses. There was a hope that this could lead into a tenure track position so I jumped at the opportunity, sacrificing a lot in order to have this chance to be where I really wanted to be. So for that year I wasn’t heavily invested in the job market because I thought it would pan out in Colorado. As an adjunct I was making between 4-5k per course I was teaching, and I was only teaching about 3 courses per semester so that I could focus on finishing my dissertation, then later once I realized I would need to look elsewhere for a tenure track position I had to focus on applications which is basically a full time job in and of itself. So from 2014-2017 I was making about 30k before taxes (with no real benefits as I utilized the VA instead). Because I was making so little, and I was on the income based repayment plan, my monthly payments were $0.
I then got a postdoc in Hungary, followed by a visiting professorship in NYC. But those familiar with academia know that these do not pay a lot, so still my income based repayment plan has been set at $0. So recently while paying my taxes I decided to look at my credit score. When looking at my debts, I was shocked at what I found. Since I graduated in 2015, and I left with $150,000 of debt, only four years later now have $190,000+ worth of debt, so there has been over $40,000 worth of interest added to my debt. This makes me sick, sad, angry, and a whole host of other emotions. Something drastic must be done, because otherwise I will likely die deeply in debt, and it is only going to get worse, cause I still haven't been able to find a well paying academic job.
I think that education should be free in general, and the way in which it has become a profitable industry is disgusting. If we were to forgive all these student loans then it would be a major boost to the economy as many people who are paying on these loans would be able to actually afford houses, cars, vacations, you name it. I get sick of hearing people say, "well what about those who did pay off their loans, they are being robbed," or some other shitty argument about personal accountability. If I had paid off all my student loans yesterday I would still be for the elimination of student loan debt, because frankly we have spent the last 60+ years telling people that to succeed they have to get an education, it has become engrained into our DNA, and we have also spent the last 40 years slowly making the cost of that education become more and more unaffordable. Nobody should face crippling debt to receive an education. Thus, I think that the elimination of these loans would not only be beneficial but also a good start to reforming higher education in general. There are a number of great plans out there, which is why it's important to listen to the different positions that the presidential candidates are proposing, but reform starts at debt elimination.