“My debt is absolutely shattering the dreams I had for myself.
… It fills me with anxiety, depression and resentment, which
detract from my career satisfaction. I really regret my career choice,
which is completely tragic and sad for me, as it was my dream to
be a psychologist.”
Results like this “are not a good thing for the profession,”
Ameen agrees, especially given the fact that salaries in
psychology have remained fairly stagnant in recent years. “The
unfinished work that this article points to is the conversation
about assessing the value of the psychology doctorate,” he says.
“In light of the costs, how are we positioning future psychologists
to be financially and professionally viable? I think the field really
needs time and focus to wrestle with this question.”
Also a problem, Doran points out, is that the significant
financial burden placed on students might keep the field from
attracting the diverse workforce it needs to serve a diverse public.
“On the one hand, psychology is very much saying we
need a diverse workforce, broadly defined — race, gender,
sexual orientation, socioeconomic status,” she says. “Yet at the
same time, because of how expensive it is, it’s very hard for
people who don’t come from privileged backgrounds to enter
Ramani Durvasula, PhD, who chairs APA’s Committee
on Social and Economic Status (CSES), agrees with
that assessment. She worries that the debt burden may
disproportionately affect people like first-generation college
students. “They don’t have the family buy-in to ease their way.
Those are precisely the people we are trying to get into the
profession,” says Durvasula, a psychology professor at California
State University, Los Angeles.
Todd Avellar, a sixth-year PhD student in counseling/
clinical/school psychology at the University of California
Santa Barbara, knows that firsthand. He is a first-generation
college student. Over his 10 years of schooling, he accumulated
$110,000 in student loans — $30,000 from his undergraduate
years and $80,000 from graduate school.
“My parents helped me as much as they could, but they
didn’t have much money either,” he says. Now, as his parents —
a retired factory worker and preschool teacher — get older, he
wishes that he could do more to support them financially. But
his debt makes even taking care of his own needs difficult.
“My car is about to give out sometime soon, and I need
transportation to get to work,” he says. “And I’m thinking, how
can I possibly think about taking out a loan for a car when I
have all these other loans?”
Taking debt concerns to Congress
APA supports efforts to bring back subsidized loans for graduate students.
In response to APA advocacy efforts, Rep. Judy Chu
(D-Calif.) introduced a bill in December to reinstate
graduate students’ eligibility for federally subsidized
student loans — loans that do not accrue interest while
the borrower is still in school.
Congress limited these loans to undergraduates as
part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. So since then,
every dollar a graduate student borrows accrues interest
from day one. The move showed that Congress was
“disinvesting in graduate education at a time when we
know that graduate education is extremely important,”
says Jenny Smulson, a senior legislative and federal
affairs officer at APA. The change could cost a graduate
student about $5,000 to $15,000 over the life of a loan,
depending on the student’s repayment plan.
In response, APA has been advocating to bring
subsidized loans back to graduate students. In October,
for example, as part of the Education Leadership
Conference, about 100 attendees
visited their congressional
representatives to ask them to
reinstate graduate students’ access
to these loans.
Chu’s bill, the Protecting Our
Students by Terminating Graduate
Rates that Add to Debt (POST GRAD)
Act, was inspired by those visits.
It is a good sign that there is now “some momentum”
on the issue, Smulson says, though Congress’s tight
legislative timeframe this year makes it less likely that
the bill will pass.
Still, she says, it’s good to have a marker out there
and to bring the issue into the public eye as Congress
considers the reauthorization of the Higher Education
Act this year.
— Lea Winerman