The Five-Ton Elephant: How Student Loans Are Crushing Our Profession

By Rachel Vagts, SAA Vice President/President Elect

After the Annual Meeting in Austin last summer, a group of archivists put together the SAA19 Archivist Salary Transparency Open Spreadsheet. As a big believer in transparency being the first step to resolving issues of wage equity, I was happy to see folks take up this effort. When I filled out the sheet I was also impressed to see all of the data points they included. But what really caught my eye was the field for the amount of student loan debt that people in our profession are carrying. Of the nearly 500 archivists who contributed to the spreadsheet, the accumulated debt was about $13.7 million. And for everyone who was able to report that their loans were paid off, there was usually someone who still owed more than $100,000.

I’m lucky. I never had a loan debt that high. But after more than 20 years working as a full-time archivist, I’m still paying off my undergrad and graduate school loans. And at about 10 years and six months, I’m also chasing the “dream” of Public Student Loan Forgiveness.

Every couple of months, I close my office door during my lunch and get out my cell phone. I dial the 800 number, punch in the last 4 digits of my account number, and then begin the wait for the menu options. Yep, it’s my regular check-in with my friends at FedLoan to see if they’ve made any more progress on straightening out the approval on the ten years’ worth of student loan payments I’ve made using their automated payment system…which for some reason had me paying ahead about $5 each month.

As the oldest of four kids, my parents helped me with my college tuition, but I was on my own for grad school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I got a work/study job at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and I took out a federal student loan to cover the rest of my in-state tuition and living expenses. All told, I think I borrowed about $16,000 over the course of those two years. I also paid my rent with a credit card more times than I should have—but that’s a different blog post.

My first job was at the University of Maryland. I was a project archivist on a two-year NEH grant and I made $29,000 annually. At that point I consolidated my undergraduate and graduate student loans ($26,000) for a repayment period of 20 years at 9% interest through my loan servicer, Sallie Mae.

I won’t bore you with all of the intervening years but, needless to say, in 2009—after 12 years of paying my loans—I owed $48,000. There were a couple of years when I took forbearance, but I never missed a payment. And then I heard about Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

I researched the program (which seemed like it might be a scam), read carefully read through the rules, and started to follow them. I consolidated my Sallie Mae loans back to the Federal Direct program, which had an immediate impact: They capped the interest rate at 4.875%, so my rate was basically cut in half. I also began paying on an income-based rate, which lowered my payments from around $400 to somewhere south of $200. I set up the automatic payment and went about my business working at my private non-profit college while the Department of Education figured out how they were going to actually run this program.

Why this long story when I know that more than a few of you have a similar one to tell? (Actually a LOT of us have a similar one to tell.) I’ve heard stories about people who haven’t been able to buy a house, have waited to start a family, don’t feel like they can move for a new job. Student loan debt has limited the choices for many of us.

As noted in the spreadsheet,[1] the average student loan debt of archivists who have been in the field for 10 years or fewer is approximately $34,588. The average goes up to $58,782 when you remove the people who didn’t have loans or have been able to pay them off. Thirty-seven respondents in this category report having $100,000 or more of outstanding debt.

The numbers don’t get much better for those who have been in the field for 11 to 20 years, with an average student loan debt of $45,972. And there were several respondents with 20+ years in the field who were still paying—including me.

So what do we do about this? These days there is a lot of talk about forgiving student loans, and I totally support that. But what if we could also come up with a way to become an archivist without having to take out a loan? We must think about new ways into our profession that don’t saddle our future colleagues with this crippling debt.

I certainly don’t have all of the answers on that one, but it’s a big part of what I want to talk about during my year as SAA president. I’m hoping that this post might start a conversation about what some of those paths might be. What if we found a new path into the profession that didn’t require prospective archivists to borrow and spend tens of thousands of dollars? How can we as a group advocate for the existing loan forgiveness programs to actually forgive loans? How can we make sure those programs are expanded to include others who weren’t able to participate for some reason? Please share any and all ideas–I would love to hear them!

In the meantime, I’m on month 8 of the up-to-12-month manual review of my last 44 payments. In a recent conversation the customer service representative told me that my extra payments would be refunded to me. I told her that was a good thing because I’d already promised everyone in my department that when my loan was forgiven I was taking them all to happy hour and buying the first round for everyone who’s still paying off a loan. I figure I might need two or three of my payments to cover it. Hey, maybe I’ll get that news in July and we can have that party at the Annual Meeting….


[1] This is approximate, as the data do not include responses that omitted years in the field and that were included in more narrative responses.

2 responses to “The Five-Ton Elephant: How Student Loans Are Crushing Our Profession

  1. My story covers telling SM I could not take any more loans, I was unemployed and on verge of homelessness. Was told I qualified because I was breathing and once was told to die so I could get out of loans. Mislead regarding payments, mislead on forgiveness (work at title 1 school), only one loan qualifies for payment forgiveness. About $60,000 loan now over $90,000. Been paying over 10 years and they want me to pay or 14 more. I am 68. Will never get higher paying work. Caregiver to my mom and husband. Begged for lower interest 15 years ago, was denied. My credit is on high 700s. Which for now is good, but real loans would mean lower interest. Scams don’t.

  2. Disclaimer: I went through a program and never landed a job as an archivist. In a way I think I’m better off. That same program soured me on higher ed overall. One renowned professor could say we should all be going ‘all in’ on digital preservation, but then struggle with PowerPoint or assume a regular laptop was a touchscreen device.

    Personally I think the training to become an archivist ought to mirror a trade. Apprentice under an archivist who is certified to teach a curriculum approved by SAA. People can learn the theory and technical tools while being supervised by a practicing archivist. As they demonstrate technical competencies, pay goes up and doors open up for jobs and training of future archivists.

    Better yet, keep options for both in place. CISCO certification has skills that could be learned in a classroom. But you still need to independently test after you take courses. If you’re driven enough, you can earn the cert on your own or with guidance/training on the job from other network engineers. A system like that also ensures relevancy for SAA as the agency setting the standard(s) and publishing the material.

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