Many graduate students at some of America’s most prestigious universities are drowning in debt up to $200,000, yet most earn as little as $30,000 two years after graduation.
A recent article published by the Wall Street journal reveals the struggles students face in the highly competitive programs at Ivy league schools that leave many of them broke and wondering if the degrees are worth being saddled by six-figure debt.
The article cited Columbia University as one of the main schools charging exorbitant tuition but offering little financial help or guidance in return.
According to the report, recent film graduates of the university who took out federal student loans had a median debt of $181,000 while making a median income of $30,000 just two years later.
Lee Bollinger, the President of Columbia University disputes the data, stating it is not a true reflection of the students’ success given that the data only looked at two years after graduation. But Bollinger also reportedly said ‘Nevertheless, this is not what we want it to be.’
The Columbia University offers the most extreme example of how elite universities in recent years have awarded thousands of master’s degrees that don’t provide graduates enough early career earnings to begin paying down their federal student loans, according to the WSJ analysis of Education Department data.
‘There’s always those 2 a.m. panic attacks where you’re thinking, ‘How the hell am I ever going to pay this off?’ ‘ said 29-year-old Zack Morrison, of New Jersey, who graduated from Columbia in 2018 with a Master of Fine arts in film. He currently owes about $300,000, including accrued interest, and earns between $30,000 and $50,000 a year as a Hollywood assistant with independent film side gigs, according to the Daily Mail.
After the WSJ article was published, Morrison shared it on Facebook and wrote ‘I disagree with the notion that masters degrees ‘don’t pay off’ or the idea that the school doesn’t provide the necessary training or skills to succeed . . . These loans are the real deal though, but it was a decision I made for myself before starting the program. At the end of the day, I hope this article is read as a criticism of the insane costs of higher education and a gig economy that still pays its workers wages that were set in the 1980’s.’
He added, ‘Given the way we all relied on the arts during the last year+, I hope we as a society find a way to improve funding for, and financial support of, our artists.’
Columbia MFA theater student Brigitte Thieme-Burdette, 31, earned an annual scholarship of $30,000, but still has to borrow $102,000 in federal loans. She is set to graduate in 2022.
Another student, Patrick Clement, 41, was also in the film MFA program and graduated in 2020 with $360,000 in debt. ‘As a poor kid and a high-school dropout, there was an attraction to getting an Ivy League master’s degree,’ he said.
He did not disclose his annual income, but teaches at a community college on top of running an antique shop.
Grant Bromley, 28, took out $115,000 in federal loans while getting his Master of Arts in film and media studies at Columbia. His debt has since spiked to $156,000 and he said, ‘It’s a number so large that it doesn’t necessarily feel real.’
On graduating, he moved in with his parents in Knoxville, Tennessee, for a year while working at the same TJ Maxx he had a job at as a teenager. He still works at TJ Maxx, this time in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and earns about $16 an hour.
Bromley is also working on his third feature film in his spare time and thanked Columbia for allowing him the opportunity to succeed in his film, wrote the Wall Street Journal.
According to the WSJ article, which analyzed data from the Department of Education, Columbia’s film students faced the most debt compared to any other Master’s program in the U.S despite the New York City university being the eighth wealthiest private university in the U.S with a $11.3 billion endowment rate.
By comparison, New York University graduates with a master’s degree in publishing faced a median debt of $116,000 and had an annual median income of $42,000 two years after graduating. Northwestern University’s speech-language pathology students in its Master’s program were saddled by a median of $148,000 and had a median income of $60,000 two years later. And Master’s students in the University of Southern California’s marriage and family counseling program borrowed a median $124,000 and earned roughly $50,000 two years later.
While student loan debt is a known issue affecting undergraduate students, what makes graduate loans even more insidious is that the federal Grad Plus loan program has no fixed limit on how much grad students can borrow for tuition, fees and living expenses.
The program, which has charged interest rates as high as 7.9percent in recent years, leads students at private universities like Columbia to take out loans unchecked.
The Wall Street journal found that at least 43% of students who recently took out loans for master’s degrees at private universities had not paid down any of their original debt or were behind on payments roughly two years after graduation.
Meanwhile, universities, are given an economic incentive to expand graduate degree programs and face no consequences if students can’t afford to pay the federal loans once they leave.
‘They’re not really held accountable for the myth they’re selling to students. We should not be giving federal-aid dollars to these programs that systematically saddle students with high debt,’ Ozan Jaquette, an associate professor of higher education at the University of California told the Wall Street Journal.
Since fall 2011, Columbia has reportedly increased published rates for most master’s programs by a greater margin than it did for its undergraduates. And during the pandemic, it kept tuition flat for undergraduate students, but raised charges for nearly every master’s degree.
Students and staff alike have attempted multiple times to appeal to the school administration to secure more funding for scholarships and reduced tuition costs.
Last December, more than 1,400 Columbia University students threatened non-payment of school fees the following semester, claiming the “exorbitant” fees are increasing their financial hardship amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In the past four years, Columbia School of the Arts said it has increased average scholarships by about a third or roughly $24,000. It also reduced the length of the MFA film program from a maximum of four years from five.
In April, Columbia announced it would be putting $1.4 billion toward financial aid, though Bollinger said administrators have yet to decide how much will go toward its master’s degree programs.
The School of Social Work also increased the number of full-tuition awards for new master’s students to 12 from two, though the fall 2020 entering class had around 560 students.
Other than that, students said that they saw little effort on administrator’s part to alleviate their financial burden, the Wall Street journal reported.
While Columbia is wealthy, it is not as wealthy as schools like Yale, limiting the funds available for scholarships, according to Bollinger and school administration. Columbia, which has an annual budget of $5billion, is also devoting resources toward a 17-acre campus expansion in upper Manhattan that broke ground in 2008.