Crass idiocy

The inescapable weight of my $100,000 student debt

MH Miller left university with a journal full of musings on Virginia Woolf and a vast financial burden. He is one of 44 million US graduates struggling to repay a total of $1.4tn. Were they right to believe their education was ‘priceless’?


I’m really pretty certain that both $100,000 and $1.4 trillion are prices.

In the summer of 2010, I completed my studies at New York University, where I received a BA and an MA in English literature, with more than $100,000 of debt,

In May, I got a freelance contract with a newspaper that within a year would hire me full-time – paying me, after taxes, roughly $900 every two weeks. ….. the payments for my debt – which had been borrowed from a variety of federal and private lenders, most prominently Citibank – totalled about $1,100 a month.

Might not be a price you like. But it’s a price.

32 thoughts on “Crass idiocy”

  1. You pay $100k for a course that teaches you to glue macaroni to the outside of tower blocks and then when you finish it you find no-one wants to pay you to do it and you are $100k in debt, I’d say you’re an idiot for not thinking of the consequences when you started the course.

    You invest $100k in a machine capable of producing shit flavoured ice cream and then find no-one wants to buy the ice cream, I’d say ditto.

    There’s a theme here. Choices and consequences. Make them, live by them.

  2. “I have spent a great deal of time during the last decade shifting the blame for my debt. Whose fault was it? My devoted parents, for encouraging me to attend a school they couldn’t afford? The banks, which should have never lent money to people who clearly couldn’t pay it back to begin with, continuously exploiting the hope of families like mine, and quick to exploit us further once that hope disappeared? Or was it my fault for not having the foresight to realise it was a mistake to spend roughly $200,000 on a school where, in order to get my degree, I kept a journal about reading Virginia Woolf?”

    Later: “I had studied English because I wanted to be a writer. I never had an expectation of becoming rich. I didn’t care about money.”

    It’s your fault, matey. And to think you put your elderly parents through hell because of your own ridiculous vanity…

  3. English Literature is basically a hobby degree (and I say that as father with a son who has a first in English Lit). Why do these people think that anyone but them should pay for their degree? Mind you, all degrees should eventually be paid for by the recipients as they are the people who benefit the most. It is just somewhat easier to pay off a degree debt when you have a proper job.


    English Lit is not a high earning degree. If he wanted to get a cheap English Lit degree he could have gone to his home state university or even a community college. Instead he chose to go out of state to a reasonably prestigious school, and has been rewarded with a job that might have been difficult if he’d gone to school at Michigan State. He’s whinging about his choices. He could also have applied for better paying or more career progression jobs – instead he’s a writer. Bottom line – he has made his bed and now must lie upon it.

  5. Yes, as DocBud says, English literature has only a very limited application to the world of work though it can help the student develop an ability to analyse and argue as well as providing useful insights into the social and political development of English speaking countries.

    A lot depends on the standard or quality of the institution and the course. An institution that hands out a BA and an MA degree simultaneously seems a bit suspect and one that encourages students to explore how they react to Virginia Woolf has probably abandoned intellectual rigour in favour of self-indulgence.

    Maybe Citibank should give Mr Miller a job to recoup the debt from his salary? Obviously not in any capacity that involves banking since he doesn’t care about money but perhaps as a delivery driver.

  6. @Dongguan John:

    I don’t know about the US but in the UK bankruptcy does not wipe out student debt.

  7. @DocBud
    “English Literature is basically a hobby degree (and I say that as father with a son who has a first in English Lit).”
    I bet career advisors at most schools don’t tell people that.

  8. As I understand it student debt is not subject to bankruptcy, but in the UK it is forgiven after some number of years at an income below a stated threshold, whereas in the US it is not.
    The problems seem to come from:-
    Once upon a time every degree had value. Some don’t realise that those days are gone.
    Teachers owe their own jobs to possession of a degree and assume that to be the path for all
    Eighteen year olds have no experience to guide them as to the wisdom of borrowing tons of money. They’ve never been allowed to earn any, never been allowed to keep themselves, never been allowed to sign a contract. Hence they take on stupid amounts of debt doing what their teachers and likely parents advised. They’re inexperienced rather than stupid, and there is no legal way for them to gain the necessary experience by the age when they make the decision.

  9. Education has diminishing returns. I know a novellist who topped the Kindle book chart quite a few times and she left school with GCSE English.

  10. Dennis the Peasant

    I have a client who spent $45,000+ a year to send his son to NYU to take a specialized program for students wishing to enter to diplomatic corps. More than $200,000 later his son is teaching Spanish at a private school in California, pulling down a cool $28,000 annually. My client could have sent him to Columbus State for two years and then Ohio State for two years, thus saving himself well over $100,000, and the kid would still be pulling down that cool $28,000.

    That solution would have been rejected as being too proletarian.

    No doubt Mr. Miller would have turned his nose up at two years at a cheap community college and then two years finishing out at an in-state land grant college, and then skipping the MA altogether. Well, OK. You got what you wanted Mr. Miller…

  11. @ Dennis the Peasant
    Isn’t NYU the cheap alternative to Columbia? And what about Scholarships? I’ve always assumed that my brother-in-law’s scholarship to NYU for his doctorate covered his fees and all or nearly all his living costs. His parents were respectable but not well-off, let alone rich.

  12. Dennis the Peasant

    NYU may be the cheap alternative to Columbia, but that’s like saying a Mercedes S450 is a cheap alternative to a Ferrari 488GTB.

    And in this case, it seems my client paid full price. I never saw anything that hinted at any scholarships.

    Mr. Miller may have received some help via scholarships, but unless it was substantial, he could have educated himself cheaper than he did.

  13. Dennis the Peasant

    For 2018-9, NYU tuition and fees runs $51.8K. Add another $18K for room and board. Then add another $1-2K for books, etc.

    Mr. Miller could have done better than that.

    And that’s one of several reasons why that client, a husband and wife in their late 50s, will be working until the day they die. The same probably goes for Mr. Miller.

  14. ‘He is one of 44 million US graduates struggling to repay a total of $1.4tn.’

    There’s that ‘struggling’ again. Meaning they should have resentment for the system, and support the revolution.

  15. @Dongguan John:

    In UK Bankruptcy did wipe all debts inc student loans – the inevitable happened. Law changed to exclude student loans

  16. Getting 50% of young people into university was a very, very bad idea. We have created a generation who believe they deserve a superior income and lifestyle simply because they have a worthless degree. These people are going to be powerful enough (collectively) to leach from the productive classes enough to fuck our entire economy. Oh, and we are simultaneously importing a giant serf class into an economy which doesn’t need them.

    Good times ahead.

  17. “. . . paying me, after taxes, roughly $900 every two weeks.”

    So, the idiot never ran the numbers and realized that, after his degree and the debt he would take on to get it, he would be making as much as a non-high-school graduate working at the corner convenience store?

    But we’re supposed to what? Feel sorry for him because he got bamboozled? You had 4+ years to check out how your chosen profession works sonny.

  18. @ Dennis
    I’ve always known (well, not quite always, just since I looked at it) that I was the family dunce but …
    I *did* think that it was bloody impressive that K got a post-grad scholarship at NYU to join E who had won a post-grad scholarship at Columbia the previous year. It seems that I was insufficiently impressed.

  19. @ Pcar
    No, New Labour passed a law that excluded student loans from being written off unde rbankruptcy laws, before anyone tried it on.

  20. @john77

    Note that particularly in STEM subjects, PhD courses in the States generally come with scholarships – in fact they’re pretty much just (not very well paid) jobs. A good general rule in the US is that if you’re self-funding a doctorate then you’re doing it wrong. Same’s probably true elsewhere too!

    I know the richer universities have very generous undergrad scholarships for those not well off (and this may even cover a swathe of the middle classes, if you can get admitted) but otherwise they can be hideously expensive places to go to. Far higher fees than the overseas (ie unsubsidised) rate in the UK.

  21. If you are conducting research in areas considered of value to industry, you will find funding, either from a single company or an industry group. I sit on a body that offers up to three PhD scholarships annually, to the very generous amount of A$100k tax free per annum for three years. Applications have been knocked back on the basis that the proposed research, while possibly of academic value, would not add value to the industry providing the funds.

  22. Note that particularly in STEM subjects, PhD courses in the States generally come with scholarships – in fact they’re pretty much just (not very well paid) jobs.

    True. And, as a result, it’s not unusual for people to take a decade or more to complete their doctorate.

  23. Chris Miller,

    Universities put time limits on degree completion. I’m not sure about the US, but UK and Aus unis would not typically allow you to take 10 years to complete a full time PhD. More to the point, sponsorships have strict time limits, mine (from the European Coal and Steel Community) was for three years. I overran by about three months for which no ECSC funds were forthcoming. One day my tutor (God rest his soul) shuffled up to me in the corridor, stuck his hand in his pocket, pulled out a wad of notes, handed them to me and said “this should help”.

  24. UK research council funding for PhD requires the university to maintain a completion rate. This is assessed not just on those funded by the research councils, so even if a self-funded student could afford to take their time, the university cannot afford to allow it.
    [I took 5 year to do mine, including extra year allowed because I was also teaching and another year for ‘writing up’. ]

  25. @ PCar
    Apologies – I don’t remember hearing of any student loan bankruptcies before New Labour changed the Bankruptcy law, si assumed that it was pre-emptive instead of reacting.

  26. Such degrees, a lot like Oxbridge equivalents here, convince idiots they are intelligent because they are taught to manipulate language. He is an idiot.

    What do I know, I’ve three degrees and no debt with a high paying job. I know nothing.

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