My financial story is a story of rocks. In order to graduate from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies without debt in excess of $70,000 from tuition and living expenses, I have applied for every scholarship under the New Haven sun. Knowing, however, that these are competitive scholarships and my chances slim, I’ve also put some of my faith in rocks. Surely under one of this area’s many rocks lies a healthy sum of cash that I could use to pay tuition or begin to pay off my loans after I graduate. I have my eye on a large boulder I saw near the Yale Bowl, but I can’t lift it on my own. Maybe someone has a back-loader I could borrow.
The three years prior to my time at the environment school I lived and worked in a rural cloud forest region in Ecuador called the Intag. This area has been slated for large-scale copper and gold mining that the local communities have actively resisted for over 10 years. They don’t want outsiders coming into their forests to steal their rocks. My involvement with local groups and communities has provided many important lessons on resource control and the inequalities of decision-making regarding their use. After graduation from Yale I would like to return to Ecuador or be involved from the United States, perhaps working for an NGO. But I fear it won’t be possible for me to continue this work — work I have trained for at the environment school. My decisions after I graduate will be guided primarily by my debt. In order to pay off my loans by the time I am 50 I will have to take a job ill-suited to my interests and training. I fear I may end up a consultant to those who want mine Intag’s rocks, instead of asking how mining the cloud forest can even be called “development.”
On a recent stone-overturning expedition, I came across other professional students who were doing the same thing. We quickly realized that it was the students from schools whose graduates most often go on to do low-paid, yet socially valuable work that were facing a debt crisis. Professional school students in the arts, and at the Schools of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Nursing, Architecture, Divinity or Epidemiology and Public Health routinely leave the University with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, limiting the ability of students with moderate means to do the work they were trained to do when they graduate. These debt burdens preclude socially beneficial, artistically risky, or independent work and force students into high-paying sectors so they can pay the bills rather than taking chances or working for change. Unless the University takes action on this issue, Yale’s professional schools will only serve those wealthy enough to pay for it, lucky enough to get one of the limited scholarships, or those who are blindly hopeful that under some rock lies the savings of a 17th century New Englander. The University should act now to ensure that our professional schools are truly open to anyone regardless of financial status, and to stop the flow of artists and public servants out of their chosen professions as a result of its financial aid policies.
The Professional School Debt Summit last week, organized by those of us who realized that looking under stones will only hurt our fingers, in association with the GESO and the GPSS, marks the culmination of months of conversations with each other, our schools and the University. We are asking for a loan-forgiveness program and increased financial aid for the professional schools. Because Yale policies force each school to rely on its alumni for funding — and because so many of our alumni are serving society in low-paying jobs — our schools on their own do not have the resources to ensure that the world-class professional training that Yale provides is truly need-blind. Yale Law School and the School of Management both have programs to enable graduates to do low-paid work after graduation. Even Harvard has a new loan-forgiveness program aimed at this problem. Surely the Yale administration, using these models as guides, could help students graduating this spring and in the years to come.
Getting the administration to take action on this has, at times, felt like trying to move Ayers Rock. Two years ago, hundreds of professional students turned in a petition to President Levin asking for negotiations on loan issues. GESO included loan forgiveness in a platform approved this fall and the GPSS unanimously passed a resolution for loan-forgiveness. Since January, representatives of various schools have been asking President Levin to take action this year. Many of our deans, and our financial aid officers, have also asked the administration to address this issue. But progress has been glacial.
As graduation approaches students should be able to reflect on their time at Yale, not worry how to pay for it. We should not have to struggle with such a heavy financial burden as we begin what should be some of the most productive years of our lives. We should be working in the fields we have been trained for, instead of endlessly rolling a big rock up a steep hill.
David Kneas is a first year graduate student at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.