“The Elite Master’s Degrees That Don’t Pay Off”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Melissa Korn and Andrea Fuller headlined “Financially Hobbled for Life: The Elite Master’s Degrees That Don’t Pay Off”:

Recent film program graduates of Columbia University who took out federal student loans had a median debt of $181,000. Yet two years after earning their master’s degrees, half of the borrowers were making less than $30,000 a year.

The Columbia program offers the most extreme example of how elite universities have awarded thousands of master’s degrees that don’t provide graduates enough early career earnings to begin paying down their federal student loans, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis….

Recent Columbia film alumni had the highest debt compared with earnings among graduates of any major university master’s program in the U.S. The New York City university is among the world’s most prestigious schools, and its $11.3 billion endowment ranks it the nation’s eighth wealthiest private school.

For years, faculty, staff and students have appealed unsuccessfully to administrators to tap that wealth to aid more graduate students, according to current and former faculty and administrators, and dozens of students. Taxpayers will be on the hook for whatever is left unpaid….

At New York University, graduates with a master’s degree in publishing borrowed a median $116,000 and had an annual median income of $42,000 two years after the program….

Undergraduate students for years have faced ballooning loan balances. But now it is graduate students who are accruing the most onerous debt loads. Unlike undergraduate loans, the federal Grad Plus loan program has no fixed limit on how much grad students can borrow—money that can be used for tuition, fees and living expenses….

The no-limit loans make master’s degrees a gold mine for universities, which have expanded graduate-school offerings since Congress created Grad Plus in 2005….

Universities, which receive their tuition up front, have an economic incentive to expand graduate degree programs and face no consequences if students can’t afford to pay the federal loans after they leave….

Matt Black graduated from Columbia in 2015 with an MFA in film and $233,000 in federal loans. He signed up for an income-based repayment plan that in leaner years requires no remittance from him. With interest, his balance stands at $331,000.

Mr. Black, a 36-year-old writer and producer in Los Angeles, said he grew up in a lower middle-class family in Oklahoma. He earns $60,000 in a good year and less than half that in dry stretches. The faculty at Columbia was stellar, he said, but he blamed the school for his “calamitous financial situation.”

“We were told by the establishment our whole lives this was the way to jump social classes,” he said of an Ivy League education. Instead, he said he feels such goals as marriage, children and owning a home are out of reach….

One foreign student said he notified School of the Arts officials in 2016 that he may need to drop out of the film program because he could no longer afford tuition and living expenses. International students aren’t eligible for federal loans. He received an email that August from an administrator.

“I was informed that you might be interested in additional on-campus work opportunities,” said the message, viewed by the Journal. “We were contacted by the Office of President Bollinger who hires students for dog caretaking.”

Mr. Bollinger said he didn’t know about or condone officials making the offer in response to the student’s situation. He said the job of caring for his yellow Labradors, Arthur and Lucy, while he traveled was intended to give students pocket money and wasn’t meant to address serious financial need….

Grant Bromley, 28, accumulated $115,000 in federal loans while getting his Master of Arts in film and media studies at Columbia. He had hoped to advance into academia after graduating in 2018. Instead, he moved back home with his parents in Knoxville, Tenn., for a year, taking a job at the TJ Maxx where he had worked as a teenager. He now works at a TJ Maxx near Chattanooga.

He is working on his third feature film in his spare time and credited Columbia for giving him the chance to pursue his passion.

For now, Mr. Bromley earns around $16 an hour and can’t afford to pay down his loan balance, which is $156,000, including undergraduate debt and interest. “It’s a number so large that it doesn’t necessarily feel real,” he said.

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