Students! Graduates! Show what you owe!

Edinburgh University: McEwan Hall
My alma mater^. (Photo credit)

I was really interested in – and shocked by – this recent xoJane article in which young folks across the pond share the extent of their debts, and talk a little about how they accumulated them. I think that encouraging discussion about this issue is really important – too many students shoulder too much debt in this day and age, and too many struggle alone without any real idea of how to deal with the massive financial responsibilities they’re lumbered with. The article showed me that the UK clearly has less of a student debt problem than the US – but with cuts to service provision (especially in FE) coupled with massive fee hikes (thanks, Dave and George, Alex and Mike!), that may be set to change.

The xoJane article encourages other young people to get in on the conversation and share their own debt, be it the result of student loans or personal purchases… so here goes.

Edinburgh McEwan Hall
I graduated here^! (Photo credit)

My MA (Hons) in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh was barely government funded at all. As a Scottish student, I was fees-free and graduate-endowment-free – something I am eternally grateful to the devolved Scottish government for. I still needed to pay my living costs – including buying a shit ton of books as I astutely picked a little-taken-up English Literature & Scottish Literature joint honours – so naturally, I applied for a student loan. My parents’ joint income was assessed, and found to be within the “maximum” threshold, meaning that my loan would be in the “minimum” threshold (NB: though my ‘rents have a decent standard of living, they are by no means Lord and Lady Ponsonby-Smythe). That meant that in my first year, I got roughly £700 on loan. That’s for the whole year.
As a result, I worked my butt off to earn money to survive. In term-time I had a weeknight job as a housekeeper and nanny to a ten-year-old boy. This was hard work, and the lady of the house was pretty unpleasant to me. But I definitely bonded with the boy I was looking after, and the job kept me really, really fit – entertaining a sport-crazy ten year old and cleaning a posh Edinburgh townhouse from top to bottom? Better than dieting, trust me.

The nanny job ran out in the Spring, and I started working for a market research call centre that some of my flatmates did ad-hoc shifts for. The work was infrequent and the pay was horrendous, but it was that rare thing: an easy-going call centre. You could wear whatever you liked, take breaks whenever you wanted, and there were only targets to meet on certain projects. Over the summer I also signed on to a temp agency and was immediately allocated permanent, near-full-time work as a legal secretary (how times have changed!). I hated every minute, but it was food money.

For the final three years of my degree my parents were supporting two kids at Uni – my sister headed to study in England the year after I started. My loan was oh-so-generously upped by about £200 in response to this. During this time I still worked way over the 15 hours per week recommended by the University. I held down a job as a telephonist for the local authority’s Social Care department, took on the odd project at the call centre, and did at least ten hours a week of freelance one-to-one tutoring in English, Creative Writing and Drama. I also lived in dirt-cheap accommodation that was probably, according to government guidelines about square footage per person, ‘overcrowded.’ (I didn’t care. After a disastrous attempt to live in a conventional student flat, I loved both the dirt-cheap places I ended up in.)

George Square Theatre
The lovely library^. (Photo credit)

Things picked up after my undergrad, but I was lucky – I just about squeaked into postgraduate employment as the heavy door of recession was closing on the UK economy. I started teaching Higher English at Edinburgh’s Telford College, covering a staff member who was off on long-term sick leave. The job paid more per hour than I’d ever dreamed of in my house-cleaning, ten-year-old-wrangling, cold-calling days, but it was constantly in jeopardy – the staff member I was covering might come back any day and take her classes back. Happily, I got more hours, and then an actual real contract, and then permanency. At the same time as this job appeared, I moved into a Masters in Creative Writing, still at the University of Edinburgh. I was awarded a scholarship for my Masters that covered all my fees. Lucky, lucky, lucky. I am still so grateful to the Universe for handing me this stuff.

I graduated from my Masters in the midst of a pretty hectic and quite dark time for my mental health, which was probably what accounted for the borderline-crazy decision to go straight into a full-time PhD (still at the University of Edinburgh) without a break. Thanks to my funk, I didn’t do much in the way of funding applications (the few I did fill out were summarily rejected anyway. It’s creative writing, after all). What I did do was have a great conversation with my parents, during which they gave me the choice: we’ll pay for your some-day wedding, or we’ll pay for your PhD. You pick. It was a total no brainer.

I’m now nearing the end of my PhD and – real-time read out!—have the following debts:

Student loan: roughly £3,000. Thanks to my lovely job, I’ve already started paying it back.
Personal debt: My PhD has cost £3,000 per year. In spite of our agreement, I do still feel like I owe my parents this £9,000 – if not more, in fact, as they always stepped in to help me out whenever I was stuck during my undergrad years. I also have credit card debt of roughly £1,200. This has just gradually crept up and up over the years, but I am managing it.
Total debt: £13,200

McEwan Hall + Kebab Mahal
Thank you, beautiful Edinburgh^. (Photo credit)

This is absolutely nothing – certainly compared to some of the people at xoJane and to some of my peers. My sister went to an English university and as a result, has more debt than this solely from her undergrad degree. I have peers who graduated at the same time as me, or just after, who still haven’t found full time or permanent employment. Over in the xoJane comments there are a lot of people giving thanks for their situation, and I definitely need to get in on that act. First, and most importantly, I am so utterly grateful to my parents for that amazing ‘wedding or PhD?’ conversation (I mean, really, is there even a choice there?!), for always being there to help me out with life’s scary gas bill moments, and for always trusting my vision, even when I came up with ideas like “I’m going to study for eight consecutive years without stopping!” I also have to thank Scotland for being a fantastic place to study during the mid-naughties. Particularly I have to thank Edinburgh, for being a tiny, walkable city with mega-cheap housing options (if you’re willing to live in a hippie commune with a mad, deaf cat!) and plenty of student-friendly cafes, thrift stores and free outdoor activities! I have to thank the friends and flatmates who’ve come and gone over the years… and my employer. Thanks, no-longer-Telford. I can has proper grown up job!

So. What do YOU owe…?

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4 Responses to “Students! Graduates! Show what you owe!”

  1. CMMK Says:

    Total debt for three college degrees= 99K

    Yeah. So when I see Americans talk about the average debt at somewhere under 30K, I assume that factors in students running on 100% grants and loans like me, with those lucky/gifted/spoiled kids with full rides or rich parents, in order to generate such numbers. Averages are tricky things.

    Undergrad at Big Ten US Uni- $45,000
    Art School Certificate-$6,000
    Graduate School at a Private College- $45,000

    Add in the fact that a few private loans have interest rates close to 9%, and you have some sizable debt.

    Do I regret my educational choices? No. I am employed in my field and able to pay for my loans each month (albeit with minimum repayment amounts) and still live comfortably.

    Does it still suck. Yes, I could have bought a house and ended up with the same debt and payments. I, however, chose to invest in my mind. I see a lot of articles where unemployed Americans gripe about the debt they were saddled with post-schooling, but the funny thing is that you made the choice to acquire the debt, you signed binding paperwork willingly and hopefully knowingly. The system may be expensive, corrupt, broken, etcetera, but you make the choice to enter it. American Higher Education is a dangerous thing for the unwise, poor and uncommitted.

  2. Claire Says:

    A fine comment, C — thank you. Good on you for being so accepting and cool about that amount of debt. I know a lot of folk who’d forget they signed on the dotted line and freak out…

  3. FM Says:

    I was lucky as an undergrad to have a parent who worked for an associated institution, so I got to attend my college tuition-free as part of their tuition exchange program. I have a BA in Women’s Studies from a private college in the US, graduating with only a $2,000 loan used for room and board my first year.

    Last year, I applied to a few MFA programs hoping to continue my studies in creative writing. I got into the programs, but ultimately–even with a sweet assistantship, financial aid and pell grants, scholarships, and a personal phone call from the director of the program to say they wanted me, especially, to attend–I would have had to take out a $10,000 loan each semester.

    Forty thousand dollars of unsubsidized debt for a poetry degree just didn’t seem like a good idea, so I moved back in with my mom and have pieced together several part-time jobs in the non-profit and arts fields. I’m happy, but hope to reapply to MFA programs again in the next few years. This time, I will only apply to ones that give full funding to students. The best piece of advice I’ve gotten in this whole ordeal is that you should ONLY GO TO GRAD SCHOOL IF THEY PAY YOU TO GO. There are so many programs now (if you are in the states, just look at the latest edition of Poets & Writers magazine) that will throw $25,000 a year at you for writing your own manuscript, getting mentored, and maybe teaching a couple classes along the way.

    I agree with you CMMK, but for me there is one caveat: people who don’t really have another choice. I had the luxury of having a happy home to move back to, but what about those in this terrible job market (I have two engineer and biology degree cousins who’ve been job hunting for over a year now) who do not have something to fall back on, a family who can support them, or any family at all. If you can’t move back home like I did, and you can’t get “real world” job to support yourself, taking on six figures of debt may be the best choice you have.

  4. Claire Says:

    F — I’m really sorry to hear you couldn’t attend any of the schools you applied for. That sucks. Hope you do get to go back and it’s as awesome as it can possibly be for you.

    Sadly, in the UK the idea of getting funded for a subject like Creative Writing — unless you’ve already proved you’re the next Martin Amis or something, in which case you might not have much desire to do a MFA — is kind of laughable. Postgrad study in the sciences, engineering, medicine — that’s what gets funded. Some Humanities. Occasionally the odd niche arts academia thing. But a full stipend to write your novel for two years? Those days are pretty much gone thanks to our lovely Conservative government.

    Part of me thinks… yeah, we need engineers and we need doctors so OK, fund them. But another part of me sighs heavily, because the arts ARE important and we DO need people to be writing books and teaching other people how to write books. Also, the government will happily fund vocational subjects at University level, but pre-Uni they’re slashing FE (community) college courses like crazy. So how the heck the engineers are supposed to *get* to Uni level I’m not sure.

    Study in the UK is cheaper, but it’s not always logical or fair, is my basic point…