Friend of the blog and insolent scourge of peer-reviewed law professors Unemployed Northeastern sent me this article from the Wall Street Journal.
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 in recent years 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 of Education Department data. . . .
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.
It has become the fastest-growing federal student loan program and charged interest rates as high as 7.9% in recent years.
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. Graduate students are for the first time on track to have borrowed as much as undergraduates in the 2020-2021 academic year, federal loan data show.
“There’s always those 2 a.m. panic attacks where you’re thinking, ‘How the hell am I ever going to pay this off?’ ” said 29-year-old Zack Morrison, of New Jersey, who earned a Master of Fine Arts in film from Columbia in 2018 and praised the quality of the program. His graduate school loan balance now stands at nearly $300,000, including accrued interest. He has been earning between $30,000 and $50,000 a year from work as a Hollywood assistant and such side gigs as commercial video production and photography.
Highly selective universities have benefited from free-flowing federal loan money, and with demand for spots far exceeding supply, the schools have been able to raise tuition largely unchecked. The power of legacy branding lets prestigious universities say, in effect, that their degrees are worth whatever they charge.
“Students gravitate to Columbia because Columbia’s Columbia, right?” film professor and writer-director Katherine Dieckmann said in a 10-minute video about the program that the school posted on YouTube in 2019. “It’s a world-class, Ivy League institution with access to all kinds of other departments, other ideas. It’s a world-class university. And the next thing is it’s in New York City. And I think that combination of elements is pretty seductive.”
That was the case for Columbia film MFA student Patrick Clement, who attended community college in California before transferring to the University of Kansas for his bachelor’s degree.
“As a poor kid and a high-school dropout, there was an attraction to getting an Ivy League master’s degree,” said Mr. Clement, 41. He graduated in 2020 from Columbia, borrowing more than $360,000 in federal loans for the degree. He is casting for an independent film, he said. To pay the bills, he teaches film at a community college and runs an antique shop.
There’s much much more in the story as they say in Hollywood, but let’s take a peek at Columbia’s most recent 990 tax filing.
President Lee Bollinger, who was making $30,000 when I was an undergraduate at Michigan 40 years ago (he was a junior professor at the law school then, and therefore much more highly paid than similarly junior professors in the humanities and social science programs), pulled down $4.6 million in 2019-20.
Let’s see here . . . what else do we have?
The university’s general counsel was making just under $800,000.
The provost was making $870K.
Somebody whose job title in full is “Secretary” was making $490K.
The guy running Columbia’s endowment was paid $6.2 million for his services. Reminder: Columbia is a charitable enterprise and therefore does not pay taxes, charity being the greatest of all virtues as my namesake so famously noted.
The executive VP for health sciences was just under $2 million.
Moving right along:
See if you can guess the punchline.