Student loans. They are sort of the dirty little secret among grad students. Not something people generally like to talk about, because having student loans means you weren’t good enough to have won the big scholarships that the other grad students were able to use to sustain themselves through undergraduate and grad school. And that you weren’t in a lab that was well-funded enough to pay you a salary ((something that was quite common in my department)). But I can assure you that student debt is an issue that affects people during grad student life and beyond.
Of the students who graduated in 2005:
- 54% of undergraduate students had some student debt
- 46% of Masters graduates had some student debt
- 44% of doctoral graduates had some student debt
(Source: Statistics Canada)
Although I did have some scholarships during my doctoral training, they weren’t enough to pay my tuition fees plus live in an expensive city like Vancouver. And after your fourth year you become ineligible for most scholarships, despite that fact that most people don’t finish their PhDs by the end of their fourth year. So it was back to needing students loans – in combination with TAships and other jobs – for years 5 and 6. Combined with the amount of student loans I owed from my undergraduate and Masters ((as the Masters I did was a 1-year coursework and project Masters, which made me ineligible for even TAships, let alone scholarships)), and we are talking a very sizeable student debt – in my case, $70,000 ((before you yell, “How on earth could you rack up that much student loan debt?!”, as I’ve had others react this way before, consider that I was in school for 11 years, only 4 of which I had sufficient scholarships & TAships & other jobs to cover my tuitions fees and living expenses. So that’s $70,000 over 7 years or $10,000 per year – and with my undergraduate tuitions fees in the late 1990s in Ontario at about $5,000/year, you can see how $10,000 per year is pretty minimal!)). We’ve talked before about how low post-doc salaries are – think about the ramifications of taking a postdoc with a $35,000/year salary (before tax) when you owe twice that amount in student debt.
Another issue related to student loans are the interest rates you pay on them. Currently you can get a mortgage in the range of 3% and finance your new car or couch for less than that – but I’m paying 5.5% on my student loans. Student loans in Canada do come with a few advantages – your interest payments are tax-deductible and if you find yourself out of work (which is entirely possible in today’s job market), the government can provide you some interest relief until you get back on your feet. But I really think we need to question why the interest rates on student loans are higher than to those to buy a car, if we truly want Canadians to become educated and be part of the “knowledge economy.” And, of course, with better funding for both undergraduate and graduate students, we wouldn’t have nearly half of those completing graduate-level eduction already behind the eight ball financially.