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From the President

Access to Learning and the Challenge of Student Debt

The MLA is committed to widespread access to opportunities for study in the liberal arts and higher education in general. The nexus of extensive student debt, the rising cost of higher education, and the time required for students to complete degrees is cause for concern, and therefore the Executive Council has adopted the following statement:

Public attention has been directed recently to the educational debt students accumulate in the course of undergraduate, as well as graduate, study. A major contributing factor has been the increasing portion of educational costs students must bear in the form of loans. To reduce debt burdens in the future, we call on Congress, state legislatures, and institutions of higher education to calibrate educational costs and student aid in ways that will keep student debt within strict limits. We also call on them to hold in check tuition increases, which often far outpace inflation, and to ensure that degree programs allow for timely completion.

The MLA Constitution designates the association’s foremost objective as the promotion of the study of modern languages and literatures. The MLA is therefore appropriately concerned about any impediments that discourage students from seeking opportunities in these fields and in higher education more broadly. Higher education can enable individuals to pursue their potentials and dreams. Higher education also allows society to cultivate an informed, talented, and skilled citizenry, which is the foundation for vibrant democratic institutions as well as for an innovative economy capable of growth. In this era of globalization, the study of world languages and literatures has particular importance. In the economy of the twenty-first century, however, college education in any field has become indispensable for the pursuit of most careers. The MLA consequently advocates broad access to college and university programs.

Even in good economic times, the transition from college to the workforce can be fraught with challenges. Today's economy is far from good, and the promise that education is a gateway to a successful career is not being kept. Elevated unemployment rates persist. Recent college graduates may not find jobs, and those who do find employment may have to settle for far less than they had once hoped for. The prospects for graduates of doctoral programs in languages and literatures are similarly discouraging, with a sharp decline since 2007–08 in new job openings for assistant professors (Report, figs. 8 and 9). Many academic job seekers have to accept non-tenure-track or part-time positions, which often have poor working conditions and low rates of compensation. While it is next to impossible to find a well-paying position if one lacks a college degree, even degree completion provides no guarantee that one will succeed in the job search.

Although there are many contributing factors to these complex problems—some global, some specific to the United States—those rooted in aspects of higher education are my main concern here. A distinguishing feature of liberal arts education in the United States has long been the insistence on the importance of encouraging students to explore fields of study as part of a path of intellectual growth that is not narrowly tied to specific career skills. College education has aspired to achieve more than the imparting of instrumental job training by instead building students’ creativity, argumentative rigor, and cognitive flexibility—capacities of the mind that might of course contribute to career success but that do not involve the mastery of specific job-related techniques or the attainment of preprofessional accreditation. This goal remains valid. It is important to recognize, however, that the liberal arts celebration of an education not linked to professional preparation has existed alongside the promise that higher education would open the door to a fulfilling career. This gap between the appeal of the liberal arts, on the one hand, and the dismal job market, on the other, persists and puts pressure on the MLA’s mission: promoting the study of language and literature. As we rightly defend student opportunities to study the liberal arts, we face a moral obligation to address the career prospects of our students and the economic pressures they will face.

One element has recently moved to the center of the national discussion: the burden of student debt. Both undergraduate and graduate students can incur considerable debt to cover the costs of tuition and fees for their education, as well as their living expenses while they participate in a course of study. In some cases, students carry this debt on their own; in others, the burden falls on their families. It is true that many colleges and universities provide financial aid to assist students in meeting these costs, but it is also true that a considerable fraction of this aid comes in the form of loans. Even if such loans facilitate access to higher education by spreading out cost over time, they also contribute to the long-term indebtedness of students and their families. This burden of debt would be significant in any case; in the current context of high unemployment and a flagging economy, it becomes onerous.

As the pursuit of the benefits of higher education increasingly requires significant indebtedness, and as job-market prospects and the wider economic conditions discourage students and families from assuming greater debt, college and graduate school effectively cease to be widely accessible. In particular, a decision to pursue a course of study in the liberal arts—language and literature, for example—can seem increasingly at odds with a student’s best economic interests. Because the MLA advocates the liberal arts and the opportunity for all students, regardless of background, to pursue a liberal arts education, the MLA also now calls for the government and higher education institutions to take steps to finance higher education opportunities that do not inordinately burden students and their families with debt.

First, financial aid must be calibrated in a way that limits the amount of debt incurred. Existing safeguards have proved to be insufficient, and too many students have completed degree programs with levels of debt that are difficult to service or repay. Yet students should not have to choose between excessive borrowing and leaving school. We need instead to enable students to complete their education in a field of their choosing without taking on debilitating debt.

Second, because a significant portion of educational debt is linked to tuition, a commitment to keep tuition increases in check is urgent. At many public institutions, some portion of recent increases has been driven by cutbacks in state funding for higher education; in such cases state legislatures are indirectly—or directly—responsible for higher tuition rates. Yet even in private colleges and universities, tuition has regularly risen at rates far higher than inflation. In general, higher education, public and private, lacks downward pressure on tuition rates. If higher education is to remain affordable and widely accessible, this has to change. Defending access to education means limiting costs to students.

Third, in the interest of holding costs down to safeguard the accessibility of education, it is imperative that institutions of higher education review degree requirements to determine that they allow for expeditious completion. Student debt is not only a result of tuition costs. Both undergraduate and graduate students also face personal expenses during their course of study. The longer the time necessary to finish a degree, the greater the expenses and thus the higher the debt that may be accrued. Departments should regularly review degree requirements to determine that they do not pose barriers to timely degree completion. It is similarly crucial that departments ensure that they systematically offer a curriculum designed to facilitate efficient student progress.


Work Cited

Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2010–11. Modern Language Association. MLA, Sept. 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2011.
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Russell Berman
2011–12 MLA President Russell Berman
© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.