I’m certainly not the first Ph.D. candidate who, with the end of graduate school in sight, has wondered: If I had to do it all over again, would I still pursue a doctoral degree?
The answer? Yes. But what’s been on my mind lately is why that’s my unequivocal response. After all, I haven’t had a full-time job in over five years, and I’ve racked up some student debt (albeit less than many of my peers) in the process. That’s something I wouldn’t have been disposed to do in the first place if it weren’t for my family background.
You might say advanced degrees run in my family. My mother has a Ph.D. in biology and is happily employed as a toxicologist in the private sector. Her father was a doctor; his brothers were another doctor and a lawyer. In fact, that side of my family is thick with Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s and J.D.’s. And while my dad was the first member of his family to go to college, he went on to earn an M.B.A. and worked in finance for years before ultimately turning in a more artistic direction. As a result, my parents take terminal degrees for granted—they’re just a step on the way to having a career you enjoy.
After working for a few years post-college, when I felt like I could go no higher on the career ladder without an advanced degree, I entered a master’s program. At the time, I thought an M.A. would be enough to get me where I wanted to go—into the upper echelons of a labor union or economic-policy think tank. But two semesters into a master’s program in economics, I realized I had so much more to learn! I couldn’t possibly tackle it all in a master’s program. I entered a Ph.D. program, aware of the intellectual difficulty, but not fully registering what it meant to pursue a doctorate and how privileged I was to be able to do so.
Recently, though, I’ve become acutely aware of my own privilege and the choices I’ve taken for granted. I have no undergraduate student debt, so I was (until I began graduate school) one of the lucky *70 percent of people with a college degree and no student debt, according to a recent study by the Urban Institute. I’m also white. Did you know that a mere 16 percent of whites have student debt, compared to 34 percent of African-Americans and 28 percent of Hispanics? So says the same study.
Without undergraduate loans weighing me down, I was free to take on some debt for my graduate studies. Of course, some graduate degrees cost an arm and a leg—six-figure law-school tuition is common—and that’s not counting the added expense of supporting yourself while in school. And the opportunity cost of getting a Ph.D.—that is, what you lose by choosing that option over another—is very high when the alternative is having a full-time job for those five-plus years.
But opportunity costs aren’t the same for everyone. They’re higher for those with more debt, and student debt isn’t accrued equally by all those who pursue Ph.D.’s or other terminal degrees.
While many programs have made efforts to diversify their student populations, black and Latino students in Ph.D. programs—many of them from working-class backgrounds—are significantly more likely to take out student loans to support their studies. A recent study of Ph.D.’s in STEM fields found that while only 10 percent of white and Asian students have more than $30,000 in loans, 25 percent of African-American students and 14 percent of Latino students do. Given the potential loan burden involved, it’s easy to see why many working-class people opt out of graduate school.
My balance sheet aside, my family background also played a huge role in my ability to pursue a graduate degree. Having financially secure parents with advanced degrees meant that my decision to seek a Ph.D. was very different than that of someone whose parents didn’t go to college.
There was never any question that I would go to college. My parents did, my brother did, my peers did—it was, I believed, what everyone did. And actually, a greater proportion of people do attend college now than did several decades ago. The proportion of first-generation college students has been declining since 1971, according to a Higher Education Research Institute report, largely because more people now have parents who went to college, too.
Unfortunately, this decline is not spread evenly across all groups; the rates of first-generation African-American college students are shrinking more rapidly than the rates of African-American parents who’ve attended college are rising, the report notes. And that’s troubling, since college is supposed to be the great equalizer.
Rhetorical scholar Brett Lunceford asserts that the challenges first-generation college students face when deciding to go to college are compounded in graduate school. University administrators and academics often take for granted the knowledge and privilege that students from academic or upper- and middle-class families bring to grad school in a way that disadvantages first-generation and working-class students (and that’s discounting the isolation first-gens may feel after they get there).
Without guidance from those in the know about how to choose a university or a department, what to include in an application, or how to prepare for grad school, students from nonacademic or working-class backgrounds can have an especially hard time landing in the right program and starting on the right foot. By contrast, my educated, well-read, and well-informed parents were among the best critics of my application materials and cover letters, and their advice improved my chances of getting into school (and into jobs).
Higher education is touted as a way to increase social mobility and earning potential—something that more people would strive for if they had the means and the luxury of choice. But sadly, graduate study is increasingly out of reach for those not born into privilege.
I’ve opened my eyes to how lucky I am to have been born into good circumstances, or higher “up the hill,” to borrow a phrase from Charles M. Blow. I think that similar acknowledgements from other academics could help turn our programs into more welcoming places.
If we think social mobility is a common good, academia should be amplifying that goal, not working against it. That means that students and faculty should represent society as a whole—not just a cross-section of scholars lucky enough to come from certain stock.
*Update: While the Urban Institute study found that 70 percent of people with a college degree do not have student debt, that could mean that they did take out debt but have already paid it off.