The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Student: I want to stop viruses like Ebola. But I can’t afford grad school.

Rebecca Ehrenkranz thought the biggest barrier to graduate school was getting admitted. Then she got in — and crunched the numbers.

There’s no way, she said, that she can afford to pay this — especially when her goal is to go into public health to specialize in viral hemorrhagic fevers, a career most would agree is incredibly important but not likely to make paying off student loans easy. 

Here’s her opinion on what needs to change to keep from shutting smart young people out of careers that matter:

“Most conversations about the price of higher education focus on college, which has become necessary in order to get a good job. But to pursue a good career, one increasingly needs a post-graduate degree.

My recent experience with grad school applications and the financial aid process illuminates the need for a new conversation about post-college tuition costs.

After graduating from Brandeis University, I began working as a data analyst at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. This foray into the working world was a great opportunity for me to gain research experience, learn computer programming, review investigational new drug protocols and earn money for graduate school expenses. My ultimate goal, however, is to work in public health as an infectious disease epidemiologist.

I plan to specialize in viral hemorrhagic fevers; I want to be the person who tracks new epidemics, monitors infection transmission and helps mitigate disease burden.

To make my career possible, I need to start with a master’s degree in public health epidemiology.

I thought my main problem would be gaining admission to programs.

But I got in to five top schools: Washington University in St. Louis, Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Penn and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

I was incredibly excited and grateful to be admitted to these schools, but once I sat down to figure out the logistics of attendance, I quickly realized that cost would be a problem. Tuition at the American schools ranges from around $60,000 at a one-year program to $70,000 at the two-year programs. Those totals don’t even include living expenses, which in many cities are extravagant.

Even with a generous scholarship at Washington University, I would still have to come up with $64,424 over two years to cover all my projected expenses.

Many of my peers are already burdened by debt from college, and there is no way we can pay for another degree at these prices. One prestigious institution blithely calculated that I could afford to pay $13,000 out of pocket for their program. I’m not sure how they decided I could afford that, because after two years of working at a nonprofit, I can’t.

My situation is far from unique — so many other millennials are paying the equivalent of two rents each month just to keep up with student loan repayments. This makes it significantly harder to invest or save money, and makes the goal of buying a house far from reach.

Debt burden compels people to rearrange their priorities; without aiming for only the highest-paying jobs, it feels impossible to make a dent in the tens of thousands many of us owe.

Those who go into the public health field do it out of love for the field, not out of love for the money. That means when the entirety of the financial aid I was offered amounts to a $35,000 loan, I am effectively priced out of a degree in public health.

While there are outside scholarships for everyone from Armenian women to Jews from Northern California, I could not find external scholarships for which I am eligible.

Need-based tuition breaks should be available to the middle class — but from what I’ve seen, they aren’t.

Schools consider gigantic federal loans to be financial aid. It doesn’t aid anyone to take out a huge loan and have to repay it with interest for the next two decades. What would be useful would be to cut the cost of tuition.

To make higher education affordable, I propose the following:

Provide incentives for schools to reduce tuition by making their federal grants dependent on a school’s best efforts to provide meaningful direct financial support to students. ‘Best efforts’ could be determined in part based on a school’s endowment. For example, Columbia University has an endowment of over $9 billion. As one of the wealthiest schools in the world, I think it can afford to lower tuition for students who simply cannot afford the asking price. Reducing the $72,000 price tag for a master’s program should mean next to nothing to a school with literally billions of dollars.

If Stanford University can eliminate tuition for undergraduates with families making under $150,000 per year, why can’t something similar be done for graduate students, who may be even less likely to have financial support from their families?

Individual schools are not the only institutions that have the power to reduce costs; the government could do much more.

Currently, the government makes money off students by setting high interest rates on federal direct unsubsidized loans and direct PLUS loans. These loans have interest rates of 6.21 percent and 7.21 percent respectively, while in comparison, typical mortgage interest rates are more likely to be in the range from 3.8 percent to 3.92 percent.

These punitive interest rates curtail the ability of America’s brightest students to enter public service professions by making exorbitant debt even costlier to repay. Thus, lowering interest rates on graduate student loans would help significantly.

Additionally, the government could take the tax dollars it already has earmarked for education and redistribute them more equitably across all levels of the educational system, from pre-k to master’s and medical school programs.

People with student loan debt are penalized harshly for an inability to pay it back. In many states, these penalties include having various licenses revoked, anything from driver’s licenses to health-care practitioner licenses. Revoking these licenses only makes it more difficult to work and get to a point where paying the loans is possible.

While there are some student loan forgiveness programs, more should be created and the current ones should be expanded to be more inclusive of those without medical or teaching degrees.

Struggling young people attempting to better themselves through education and launch a career should simply not have to manage interest rates almost twice that of the average homeowner.

While I understand that implementing these ideas may not be realistic, we students should not be priced out of degrees that prepare us to help solve some of the greatest social, political and health concerns of our time.

Reducing educational costs for students like me who want to spend our careers improving the health of entire populations would be a worthwhile investment. Pushing students like me into shouldering an extraordinary debt load will hurt more than individuals; it will affect my entire generation.”