Post-Apocalyptic Undergraduate Zombies

With all the discussion of student loan debt lately, I had a curious. I went to look up the current tuition for UCSD, my undergraduate alma mater–part of the UC system, keep in mind, so at least in some part state-subsidized. When I went there it was because I couldn’t afford out of state tuition for UW, which at the time was $11,000 per year.

Holy shit.

It’s not only doubled since I graduated in ’02, but nearly tripled, to a bit over $13,000 per year, up from $5000. $2k more than the out of state tuition I couldn’t afford. (Which is now up to a Lol-arious $27,000 per year at UW.)

I moved out of California in ’01 (yes, that math is weird, I did my senior year at Edinburgh University and took the degree exams there) and have only been back for about 9 months since, during which time (2003) I attended Cal Poly for graduate school (then $2000 per year tuition, now $6606 per year). I have student loans from this, boy howdy, and a lot of it is from those 9 months as–well, let’s just subtract the life story part and say that I was very late in applying and missed the window for grants, I was not yet married nor employed, so I had to take out loans for the whole of my living expenses and tuition. Fun.I am well aware that the California budget looks a lot like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon: the Terminator paints a tunnel on a wall and disappears through it while the rest of the state faceplants. I knew tuition had gone up, but fuck. Even my community college (American River in Sacramento) is up from $13 per unit to $20, which doesn’t sound like that much and isn’t as bad as the rest, but that’s still a 50% increase. Let’s not even talk about what my private school east coast friends paid.

My loans aren’t really that bad, comparatively. I went to community college, then state schools, and my UCSD tuition was taken care of by grants every year. Not covered, naturally–the expense of living in San Diego (which hasn’t had on campus room for the majority of its students and none of its transfer students for years) and San Luis Obispo, liberal arts textbooks, and commuting. I also worked pretty much the whole way through. I did all those things the 53% kids say they did, and I still had to have loans. Still have loans. Will for awhile. Because real life keeps coming along whenever I think I can pay them off.

And I can’t imagine trying to do it now, with even state tuition looking like that, and cost of living astronomically high. I don’t necessarily agree with student debt forgiveness–I took out those loans and I’m responsible for them. But then, I didn’t have to take out high interest loans co-signed by my parents, and I got several grants and scholarships that aren’t widely available anymore. The answer, I’d say, is that college shouldn’t cost so damn much (the tuition is too damn high), especially having experienced the UK system where my peers were paying about 1000 pounds a year for heavily subsidized education that didn’t bankrupt anyone before they could even get a job.

I remember too well how unaffordable and impossible everything seemed when I was 19 and trying to get an apartment in San Diego with a roommate who was not a literal crackhead (ended up with the next best thing, a closeted lesbian fundamentalist Christian with a drinking problem, and still living an hour and a half from campus). I actually cried the first time I went into the housing office and saw the rents posted–having moved from Sacramento where you could still (in 2000) get an ok studio apartment on your own for $400 a month, La Jolla and anything actually on the bus route to campus might as well have been in Shangri-La.

I try to imagine being in college now. I think about what I majored in, which was Classics. Dead languages, yo. EXTREMELY PRACTICAL. And every single person who asked my major followed that up with “How do you expect to make money from that?” so I could not have been totally blind to how not useful that degree was. I had a plan and that plan was to be a professor–my mother was one, it was a world I knew. Of course, these days those very colleges whose tuition makes one choke have cut many of their tenured positions so that they can pay adjunct faculty embarrassingly little. And I did manage, somehow, by the grace of whatever gods there are, to back into a job where I use my degree just about every single day. It DID turn out to be extremely practical, a really excellent education for a genre writer–but that might have gone the other way just as easily, leaving me to work–or as likely in this economy, not work–as a greeter at Wal-Mart. Or, in a better case scenario, an office manager, or the other clerical professions that don’t really care what your degree is in. Maybe a nanny, or a PA. And I may still end up doing that–writing is never safe or sure.

As we start to make tentative plans to have our first child, I find all this terrifying. (Like how I just slip that in there? If you don’t blog it, it isn’t real, but nothing’s happened yet so it feels weird to make a thing of it. The plan is sometime after The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland comes out next year. Fingers crossed.) What would I tell a kid of mine who wanted to major in something impractical like I did? I can say: don’t major in creative writing if you want to be a writer, you have to know something to write about, but what else? Double major in something “useful”? Because what is useful now? Computer Science, I guess, though that’s no guard against unemployment. But servicing and programming the robots is about the only thing I can think of that’s even in the orbit of a safe bet. It’s all luck or connections. Be born connected or have a leprechaun’s luck. MBAs have glutted the market, same with law school grads. You have to have the spare time to work unpaid internships to leverage those degrees. Since you have to go to college to get even low-end jobs now, graduate school is becoming the next “everyone has to” bar, and that costs even more. And you know, there is huge value to finding yourself in school, exploring, not deciding right away, meeting people who are not exactly like you and your parents. I wish there was a less apocalyptically expensive way to do that.

And all the while people bitch about generations, and how they’re entitled, and their delayed adolescence. Which is just so gross. How can adolescence not be delayed when the basic requirements for working and living keep going up? So yeah, I understand the collegiate strain in the Occupy Wall Street crowd–I’m not at all sure how I feel about OWS as a whole, but I get the trapped feeling. It’s less and less possible to escape the trap, and it feels like that’s by design, so that we start out buried in the system, and spend most of our time just trying to get our heads above water.

It’s hard not to feel hopeless. I have to stop reading blogs I used to, just to not want to hide all day long from a whole bunch of things I can’t effect and have no solution to. The whole system that the Boomers have told us would be eternal because it worked for them actually functioned for maybe 20 years, but not only do we keep getting told to behave as though it’s still in place, we still kind of believe it should be and that somehow we’ll go back to it. We never will. I have no idea what kind of SF working world is coming, but something else is, the only question is whether it will be a new set of assumptions that will burn out by the next generation or straight up dystopia, and then how dystopic it aims to be. I read an article saying it’s the end of the industrial age in the West, and maybe it is. Maybe the robber barons bookend that world, and we’re headed out of it. I suppose I did just give a talk about how medieval our lives really are right now.

Maybe it’s not as bad as all that. But I look at that tuition, and I see plans to raise it another 30%, and I wonder how anyone is going to manage 20 years from now. I need a drink.

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