Obama to Grad Students: Pay Up

To save student-loan programs, the White House has saddled master's and Ph.D. candidates with added debt.

Some worry the higher costs could make graduate school solely a province for rich kids: On average, black and Hispanic students already have higher debt loads than whites and Asians.

McAllister says the government must make sure that debt doesn't dissuade students from going to graduate school. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that in the next decade, 2.6 million jobs will require people with advanced degrees. "If we want to meet these workforce needs, we should be investing in graduate education," she says, "not balancing the federal budget on the backs of students."

The $80,000 MFA

I paid off my law-school loans; you can, too!
Christopher Dilts
I paid off my law-school loans; you can, too!
Paster: Rising grad-loan rates “make a bad situation worse.”
Paster: Rising grad-loan rates “make a bad situation worse.”

Student debt might already be affecting some graduate programs, as nationwide enrollment dropped slightly in 2010, the first decline in seven years, according to a recent report by the Council of Graduate Schools. But it's a mixed bag: While fewer students are seeking doctorates in the arts and humanities, more have enrolled in business schools and the sciences.

That trend is mirrored at area universities. The number of graduate students at CUNY has remained virtually unchanged at about 33,000 since the fall of 2009, yet its Graduate Center has seen gains in the health sciences. Likewise, Columbia's professional schools have grown in the past year, while enrollment has been flat in its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. NYU reports similar findings, though new applications are up a bit this year.

MFA graduate student Monica Johnson found unwanted fame for showing up in Zuccotti Park last November to talk about the $88,000 in debt she accumulated during college and graduate school. She understands those who criticize her for a costly degree choice.

"At this point, I'd never say an MFA is the best degree, but there was a logical line of reasoning that led me here," Johnson says. "Both of my parents have associate degrees from a technical art school in Michigan, and both of them were able to have viable careers." She points out that not even law school is a safe bet these days. The job market is having a hard time absorbing new law graduates, and as a result, the number of students taking the LSAT has dropped by 25 percent over the past two years.

"I wasn't comfortable taking out the loans, and I kept asking people, 'Is this what you're supposed to do?' I'm not blaming anyone, but now I wish someone would have pulled me back. Everybody said, 'You just got to do it.'"

Johnson says her big mistake was starting her master's at Pratt Institute, where she borrowed more than $40,000 to cover one year's tuition, before leaving to enroll in an integrated-media art program at Hunter College. "I have a job, and I'm paying only $1,000 a class," she says. "It really is the price tag that's the problem, I think."

Facing the Future

The students gathered in front of St. Francis College in Brooklyn don't look like the next class of suckers, but everyone interviewed during a recent lunch hour was thinking about graduate school. Most claimed a graduate degree is now necessary to get a good job.

"Going to grad school gives you an advantage, but so many people go," says Christopher Santoro, a junior from Dyker Heights. "Grad school's become what college was 30 years ago."

Santoro has paid for his education with Stafford loans. Tuition at St. Francis is $18,100 a year, and 95 percent of students receive financial aid. "It's going to take a while to pay off all the loans," Santoro says. "Especially if I go to law school, it will be a lot, lot more. But I have to do it. I'm even contemplating going to grad school in engineering because law-school graduates are having a hard time getting jobs. My mother is the head of human resources at a bank, and she says everybody they hire is coming out of an Ivy League school.

"It's good that Obama's talking about financial aid," Santoro says, and he doesn't blame the president for taking the subsidy away from federal loans for graduate students. The student-debt crisis is another inherited mess, he says. "I'm a libertarian, but if I had to vote right now, I'd vote for Obama. I don't like anyone on the Republican side. We have no choice."

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