you're not alone, and it's your not your fault

I spent the last three weeks working on a subject that’s very personal to me: student loan debt. I’m very public about mine: I have just under 100k, and am only now, seven years after graduating with my PhD, beginning to pay down the principle. A third of that debt is from the first year of my Master’s Degree, which was “unfunded,” aka I didn’t have a tuition remission through the department, and thus paid for out-of-state tuition (plus cost of living, even though I was working part-time at three different jobs). The other two thirds comes from paying cost of living, “fees,” health care premiums, etc. over the next five years of grad school.

I would work part of the summer, but not all: I had been told that the only way to excel at grad school (and get a job afterwards) was to devote the summers to publishing and studying for my qualifying exams. And the harder I worked (on my dissertation, on articles, whatever) the faster I could get out (and thus avoid accumulating even more debt). I didn’t live on rice and beans, but I also didn’t live extravagantly. I was TA’ing the entire time, but was being paid, by my department, just enough to cover my rent in Austin plus weekly groceries. When school wasn’t in session, I wasn’t paid. There weren’t opportunities to TA in the summer. There was no union to fight the way students were nickled and dimed on “fees.” I’d had other options for PhD programs, but University of Texas was the “best” one in terms of prestige — I thought I’d make up whatever I lost in extra loans by getting a better job.

And, as I feel like I’ve now written many times in this newsletter, I was wrong. I knew the amount of loans I was taking out were astronomical. I knew that I had been lucky to emerge from undergraduate without loans. But I also didn’t see another path forward: loans were the way to get through my PhD; a PhD was a way towards a “good job,” the sort that seemed so very elusive at the height of the economic crisis. More education was always the way to a better job.

We’re rethinking so much of the logic in that paragraph. But I still needed to work through my own sadness and isolation and anger, and because of my (very expensive) training, the way I do so is by reading a lot, and talking to a lot of people (both of which can also be called “reporting” and then writing a big sprawling piece about it.

I combed through hundreds of responses to a student loan forgiveness survey that I put together, and followed up with dozens of respondents, learning more about their specific stories. I read Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed and Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Paying the Price and Grubb and Lazerson’s seminal work The Education Gospel. I read so many pages of College Board debt/tuition statistics. I read John Thornton on debt forgiveness, and realized that narratives like the one that begins this newsletter are ways of steeling myself against “the retributive view”: aka, you could’ve, and should’ve, made different decisions; your debt is your fault alone.

I read about the specific fuckery of FedLoan and talked to the people who’ve monitored that fuckery most closely; I read a ton about the GI Bill and its ramifications for generations to come — and how those ramifications were largely closed off from servicemen and women of color. (The section on the GI Bill in the original draft was about four times the size). I talked to my parents about their student debt and their parents student debt (or lack thereof) and asked others to talk to their parents and grandparents about the same.

And then I tried to synthesize it all. That’s hard! Synthesis necessarily leads to things that get left out and things that feel less important or take up less space than they should. Part of the challenge of writing a feature story is trying to fit in as many facts and hard policy explanations and historical context with actual human narratives that make people care and pay attention in a way they might not otherwise. Sometimes that means picking one person’s story and using it as a way to talk about so many aspects of an issue; sometimes that means taking one issue (in this case, student debt) and using many people’s stories to try and show just how multi-faceted and human it is. All the while, you’re trying to trim and “tighten” to make it so that people won’t look at the length of the piece and give up entirely. My editors are vital to this process, but one of the frustrations of a features writer is reading critiques and knowing that the thing that particular reader sees as missing is something you so desperately wanted to include.

No feature can do everything — if books can’t do and cover everything, there’s just no way that a feature article on the internet can. But my task is trying to figure out how each piece gets as close to “everything” (in terms of context, history, and intersectionality in its myriad forms) as possible. That’s the work. That’s what I’m trying to do every day. And I’m grateful to each of you who filled out the survey or tweeted your debt genealogy at me or sent me articles to help me in that work.

It’s no joy to write about student debt in this way. Even celebrating the publication of this piece by making the last payment on a private student loan I took out in 2005 to cover the cost of getting my wisdom teeth out doesn’t feel joyful. But it does feel worthwhile — even if just one person reads this piece and thinks differently about their own debt, or realizes that they’ve thought they were on PSLF and aren’t, or reconsider the idea that student debt doesn’t matter to you if you, yourself, don’t have it. That sounds hokey. But that’s the work. That’s the exhausting and gratifying work.

I’m going on vacation for the next three weeks (it won’t cure my burnout but it certainly won’t aggravate it!) but the newsletter will be back, chock full of new recommendations, in March.

For now, here’s what I read and loved this week:

If you know someone who’d appreciate this sort of thing in their inbox, send it their way. You can subscribe (or find links to share on social media) here. Please forgive any typos or weird sentences — writing with slight inattention to detail is what allows me to get this out for free every week. And if you’re struggling with student loan payments or PSLF, there are resources listed at the bottom of the page, but don’t discount the Reddit forums that have also helped so many others. You’re not alone, and it’s not your fault.