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Grad Students Struggle To Pay School Loans While Still Studying


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's spring, a time of new beginnings, but for many students, time for big decisions about college admissions and aid. So this season we're joining our colleagues at Morning Edition to bring you stories about paying for college. We'd like to try to help you navigate that higher education money maze. Today, though, we want to focus on financing graduate school.

And if you gasp at the amount of money some students owe after four or five or even six years of college, imagine what that bill looks like for people who spend another two or more years in school. Abigail Williams experienced that sticker shock. She is pursuing her PhD, but she is now more than $90,000 in debt. Her story was recently featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And she's with us now. Welcome, Abigail Williams. Thanks so much for joining us.

ABIGAIL WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Debra Stewart. She is president of the Council of Graduate Schools. That's a nonprofit organization devoted to graduate education and research. She's also featured in the article. And she's also with us here in Washington, D.C. Welcome to you, thank you for joining us as well.

DEBRA STEWART: Thank you, delighted to be here.

MARTIN: So, Abigail, let me start with you - and congratulations, by the way, on everything.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

MARTIN: So what are you studying and why did you want to go to graduate school to begin with? Is this something that you have to do for the field that you want to go into?

WILLIAMS: Well, yes. I am currently a third-year student in the joint social work and psychology program. And, you know, like many people that are drawn to the social sciences - I have a desire to help people, you know. So I went into undergrad, became a psychology major and basically what you find out in undergrad is that in order to get a job as a psych major you got to go to graduate school, you know. So I began my studies and I just had no idea that the decisions that I made at 22 or 23 would have an impact on me for the rest of my life.

MARTIN: When did you start to think, holy smokes - I have a lot of debt? Was there a particular moment?

WILLIAMS: Well, actually what happened was I graduated with my terminal master's degree in psychology and when you graduate, you know, they send you all these things as if you're going to actually graduate - so exit counseling. And, you know, I went through this exit counseling as if I was going to graduate and, you know, they said, oh, you have X amount of dollars. But then it was something at the end where it was like - when you graduate you'll pay $900 a month out of your income once you graduate. So that's before a mortgage or any kind of rent, any kind of utilities or anything like that. And that was like a major wake-up call to me because I recently got engaged. And we're thinking about buying a house. And it's just like how can I afford a mortgage when I have $900 in, you know, student loan repayments.

MARTIN: Debra Stewart, let me turn to you. According to the National Science Foundation, the amount of debt graduate students have taken on has grown by nearly 70 percent since 2002. Can you help us understand what's behind that increase?

STEWART: Graduate debt is on the rise to be sure, but there are a huge number of factors that explain that. First, state support for public universities has been on the decline for 20 years, and that decline really heightened during the recession. Second, third-party payers, employers who typically in the past have paid for students to go to graduate school, are now less able to do so. The third thing that's made a huge difference is undergraduate debt has increased so dramatically. Undergraduate debt has increased at a higher rate than graduate debt so that when you get to graduate school and you borrow more that compounds the problem.

MARTIN: So, Abigail, you were also telling us that you're a first-generation college graduate - undergraduate college graduate.


MARTIN: A lot of people in your family really encouraged you to go to school because this was something that they had not been able to do. But presumably, they really didn't know much about the financing of it. The institutions that you attended initially, did they talk about that kind of - the money, the bottom line part of it? Do you feel that they were really upfront with you about how much this would all cost?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, you mentioned a great point about being a first-generation college student because often times, you know, you're told - go to college, you know, that's how we do it. That's how you make something of yourself. But then you don't have the educational support as well as the financial support in terms of making informed financial decisions. I don't know, I received tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships along the way.

I started receiving scholarships when I was a junior in high school, however because the increase in tuition prices - that's what's really - even with all of my scholarships - I still had to take on debt in order to pay for incidentals without having that family support to, you know, call up and say, hey, mom and dad, you know, I need my X, Y and Z paid. And without having that kind of support, the only way to get it, you know, is to, you know, take out loans. This is on top of jobs that I've had. I've had at least two jobs throughout all of my education. So...

MARTIN: Debra Stewart, what about that? Is this the kind of conversation you're hearing with some of your member institutions?

STEWART: Absolutely. Abigail is right. There is compelling proof that a graduate degree advances careers, but the fact of the matter is people simply need to have the information to be well-informed consumers. Right now we're working with 15 institutions around the country to develop best practices in terms of informing students like Abigail.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having the latest installment of our series on paying for college. Today, though, we're talking about graduate school. And we're speaking with Debra Stewart of the Council of Graduate Schools and Abigail Williams - she's a PhD student at the University of Michigan. So, Abigail, you know, you are in a helping field. I mean, social work is not a field that is known to be terribly lucrative.


MARTIN: And I just have to ask - if you think somebody had been really tough with you about how much this was likely to cost and how much you're likely to make, even though you've gotten a lot of support, do you think you'd still have done it?

WILLIAMS: I do. And the reason that I do is because I have a motivation that's beyond, you know, dollars and cents. I have a motivation to help, you know, to give of my time, my energy, and my effort. You know, it's just - it's really a shame when you're told - you want to help, you go get the training, but then that training in a way hinders you from having progress in your own life.

MARTIN: So, Debra, tell me more about some of the conversations that member institutions are having around this whole question.

STEWART: They're huge conversations going on right now. The first thing to remember is that, well, tuition - graduate tuition - has gone up. It has not gone up as quickly as undergraduate tuition. So the graduate students face a compounded problem - undergraduate debt and graduate debt. Graduate institutions around the country are seeing this and are actively engaged in financial management education of the kind that we talked about before. National institutions like the Council of Graduate Schools are launching major programs, tools that students can use to be better informed. Remember that our institutions, our universities, through all of this have provided 59 percent of all of the grant money - grant money is money that students don't work for nor do they have to pay back. Institutions themselves have provided 59 percent of all grant money that's gone to graduate students.

They have a commitment, but everybody needs to be a partner in this - the institutions, the students, the federal government, the state governments. Graduate education is a clear national need. There is undeniable payoff and economic growth and job creation, innovation, in meeting critical social needs like Abigail is directed toward.

MARTIN: When you hear a story a little like Abigail's - I'm just - can I ask you for your personal opinion - like how it makes you feel? I mean, here's a young woman who's - went to school, persevered after her mother died, raised by an aunt who pushed her to do what everybody says you should do, and now she's $90,000 in debt. She hasn't yet finished her degree. She wants to start her new life as an adult. And when you hear a story like that, which is not an uncommon one, do you mind if I ask how it makes you feel?

STEWART: Well, the first thing I feel is huge admiration for Abigail's perseverance. This is a young woman who is sticking to it, who's putting the work in, who's making the effort and who will figure out a way to pay off this debt. That said, this is not just Abigail's problem. This is all of our problems because we need the Abigails of the world. The country needs people to make this kind of investment if we're going to succeed.

MARTIN: Abigail, finally, do you mind telling us about your plans? I understand that you made a decision to swear off new loans.


MARTIN: How are you paying for school now? And how far are you from your doctorate?

WILLIAMS: Well, I'm in my third year, so I'm in about halfway through the program. And as I've mentioned before, I've gotten tremendous support from the University of Michigan - financial, social, academic, professional - just wonderful support here. And I'm nearing the end of my time here and I want to go on and I do want to make that difference that we talk about making. And, you know, hopefully there will be more support out there as I continue on.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations on your engagement...

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...And continuing your education. Keep us posted.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

MARTIN: We'd like to hear from you. Debra, final thought from you - about what are some of the avenues that your member institutions are pursuing in order to try to address this.

STEWART: Well, part of it is things that our institutions can do, but I think we have to recognize that the country as a whole has to confront the problem of graduate student debt. The federal government needs to recognize that graduate education is one of the smartest investments the country can make. We need to modify graduate student loan policies so that they don't actively discriminate as they do now against graduate students.

MARTIN: How do they discriminate?

STEWART: Well, for example - two years ago, the in-school subsidy, which historically has been available to both undergraduate and graduate students, was removed from graduate students so now graduate students have to begin to pay back the interest on their debt while in graduate school. Now this is an example of a federal loan policy that makes life more difficult for Abigail and for all of her colleagues.

We must sustain and expand graduate fellowships and traineeships, especially in critical areas of national need and especially for those very talented students who are able to pursue doctoral degrees, like Abigail. And finally, we must restore public funding for our large public universities because, historically, they have provided a huge percentage of the graduate education given in America and they are now hugely financially strapped.

MARTIN: Do you see any evidence that these recommendations are being considered? Because I have not heard any discussion of this. We've heard a number of people complaining at the undergraduate level about loan policies and underwriting standards and things like that, and how it has affected particularly underserved groups, but I've not really heard any conversation about the graduate level.

STEWART: The conversation about graduate student debt is just beginning. For many years, we've broadly recognized that investment of graduate education is - in graduate education, from the federal government especially, has been a good thing. What we're just coming to see is the failure to sustain those investments is now causing this escalation in debt at the graduate and undergraduate level. And that has to be addressed if we're going to succeed as a country and if individuals are going to succeed as individuals.

MARTIN: Debra Stewart is president of the Council of Graduate Schools. She joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Abigail Williams is a graduate student at the University of Michigan. She joined us from the campus in Ann Arbor. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

WILLIAMS: Thank you.

STEWART: Thank you.

MARTIN: And just a reminder, you can weigh in with your own story or question on Twitter at #PayingforCollege. We'd like to hear from you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.