Economisting Blog

#CancelStudentDebt for relief and recovery

I updated a 2015 report that I wrote on student debt in Massachusetts for the current context of the pandemic, arguing that now more than ever we need to #CancelStudentDebt.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association along with the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, Zero Debt Massachusetts, Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, and friends had a Facebook Live event where we chatted about why student debt cancellation is critical. 

Then, I quickly gave my two sense about it on the local radio on the Bill Newman Show along with MTA Vice President Max Page.

Time for a #PeoplesBailout and to #CancelDebt

Wrote some words about this over at Data For Progress

“To get through this crisis, we need more than just stimulus checks to households—we need consumer debt forgiveness for a real stimulus and recovery. As the chant from Occupy Wall Street went: “We got sold out, banks got bailed out.”

The Trump administration continues to insist on a recovery focused on bailing out large corporations and other businesses, while workers bearing the brunt of the crisis are faced with relying on a small, one-time stimulus to make ends meet, and to pay their debts.

But if the economy is in crisis, why not just cancel or forgive these debts instead of siphoning off of stimulus checks? “… –> Read More on the Data For Progress Blog.

Remote Learning: Some thoughts

After a lot of confusion, UMass Amherst switched to online remote learning for the remainder of the semester following Spring Break this week.

First and foremost, I am holding a lot of emotional space for my students. The last time I saw them, they were quite scared, anxious, uncertain, angry, and most of all, sad. The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, and it’s important to really allow ourselves to understand that emotionally. My students’ lives were upheavaled in just a few days, with many unsure of where they are returning back to, some expressing concern about home life and safety. The last time we met, we discussed both our acute concerns about the University, logistics, and where everyone will go, as well as our macro concerns about our communities, the future, politics, the economy, and the world as a whole. That is a lot to carry. So I will accommodate the heavy burden we are all carrying with flexibility, while also still providing the materials and structure, as many students may appreciate some structure during this time.

Screen Shot 2020-03-16 at 8.54.59 AMThat said, I felt the pedagogically appropriate thing to do in this situation was to first send them a survey about the transition to remote learning. I sent my students a Google Form in an email where I explained that I wanted to see where they are at right now, and that the survey was not required and they only had to answer questions if they wanted to (all of them were optional). Each question also had an open ended response option. They can share nothing or as little as they would like, or share detailed thoughts.

My remote learning survey consists of two parts:

1.) Well-being and Internet Accessibility Check-in

  • How are you doing?
  • Do you have your travel plans set and a safe place to stay? Yes, maybe, still figuring it out, no, or open ended response.
  • Do you think in your expected or current situation you will have at least an hour to a few hours each week to spend on classwork? Yes, no, maybe, not sure yet, or open ended response.
  • Do you have stable internet access? Or do you have to make special arrangements? Yes, maybe, open ended response (or no response).

2.) Remote learning preferences, expectations, and suggestions

  • I had students rank their preferences about: discussion forums, live video lectures, recorded video lectures, recorded audio lectures, live Q&A video chats/office hours, live Q&A text chat/office hours, free videos/film content, news-based readings and discussion, peer review assignments, short writing assignments, and other suggestions they may have
  • I also had students rank preferences about topics for our course (on debt): 2008 Financial Crisis, government debt and deficits, corporate debt, or other suggested topics
  • I asked them for suggestions for videos/films and other content we can draw on

As for the grades issue, I told everyone not to worry about grades (I say that anyway). But, really, we’re beyond grades now. If you want feedback and structure, I’m happy to do my best to provide that. If you have other priorities, so be it.

I also liked the guidance of this post “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online“. I agree with most of it, especially asynchronous work and the points on accessibility. I think as we go forward we all will be uniquely balancing per each classroom being flexible given the scale of the current situation and still providing space, structure, routine, and “normalcy” for our students who need it. How about that for highlighting the care function of professing?

I try to maintain a very participatory and democratic classroom, always reminding my students that this is THEIR course. I think they appreciate that and so far have expressed concerns about their anxiety levels as well as their living situations, but also a desire to continue learning and to use our remote learning course as a space to discuss and analyze current events. I feel for them, but I think something unique may bloom in this weird situation. 🌹

Reflections on teaching about student debt…

This semester, I have a unique opportunity to teach my own course on Student Loans, Other Debt, and the U.S. Economy. As a 100-level course, there are no pre-requisites, and as a special topics course, it is not a pre-requisite for any other course. Instead, it is a course open to all majors and levels, that weaves a thread about debt to understand different aspects of the economy, especially inequality and instability. We do so through four units: student debt, mortgage debt and the 2008 crisis, corporate debt, and government debt, with student debt being the largest unit.In Class Causes of Student Debt

In teaching on student debt so far, I have made some surprising observations about where students are at in terms of understanding the development of student debt, its impacts, and what can be done about it.

  • in the first weeks of course, many shared personal concerns about debt, especially those that either have debt or have had friends/family take on student debt
  • a general sense of fear and anxiety associated with student debt
  • naïvité in understanding student indebtedness as a very *new* norm in American society
  • a tendency to view debt as playing a role in getting a “return on investment” in education
  • some express doubt about education or a degree actually being meaningful in the economy
  • viewing debt as a matter of “responsibility” and desiring “financial literacy”, a tendency to internalize student debt as a matter of “poor decision making”
  • they want to learn how to be “smart” with their money
  • some think colleges are profiting off of debt
  • most chose UMass in part due to concerns about debt
  • some international students express confusion about the American system of higher education financing

What I find most interesting is how deeply the rhetoric of personal finance in ingrained in many students- even those who lived through the 2008 crisis.

Review of Indebted on the Phenomenal World Blog 👉

Coming out of my job market and dissertation cave to share that I wrote a review of Caitlin Zaloom’s book Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost.

My review, over on the Phenomenal World blog published by the Jain Family Institute, focuses mostly on connecting Zaloom’s critique of the “student finance complex” to larger critiques of neoclassical economic theory. Overall, I highly recommend reading Indebted, and will be using it as a main text in my upcoming course on Student Loans, Other Debts, and the U.S. Economy. Read the book, and other good reviews, to learn about the ways in which many families are taking on large debt loads, forgoing savings and retirement, and reshuffling their lives for a shot at the so-called American dream.

Check out some of the other great reviews on the Phenomenal World blog too- including new research on the geography and concentration of higher ed access, and other great coverage of new research in social science.

Grad Student Beginner’s Guide to Restricted-Use Data

I decided to write down some steps for graduate students looking to work with restricted-use data, but not at a university or department offering dedicated secure data space or licenses to tack on to (because institutional memory is important!). My advisor was super helpful in walking me through the process, but this outline quick guide may be helpful to others, especially since this isn’t a topic you learn in any courses in graduate school.
There are two main steps to obtaining restricted-use data, which are:
1.) IRB approval at your university
2.) Restricted-use data application approval from the data source
The first step is to read about the IRB (Institutional Review Board) process and complete a CITI training, so that you understand the process and issues that arise in research ( As a researcher, you will renew this every three years. I actually found the history and ethical issues around Human Subjects Research in the training to be very interesting.
After that, some tips and steps:
1. Identify the research office on campus. Ask “Which office deals with Research Compliance and IRB approval?” Folks in this office can guide you to the necessary steps in getting your research approved and get rolling with your restricted-use data license.
2. Is your research human subjects research? If so, what category? To find this out, you will first file a Human Subjects Determination Form, or similar, with the research office (or equivalent).
3. After determining the category of your human subjects research, then you will begin the IRB approval process. This involves writing a protocol for your institution’s IRB that demonstrates why you need restricted-use data and how you will adhere to security protocols.
3. For your IRB protocol, collect all application materials from the data source and note the steps needed to complete them.
a. Do you need a computer security plan?
b. Do you need notarized signatures? Is a notary available in your department or on campus?
c. Does some portion of the application need to be completed by the Research office of your university?
4. Draft all of the relevant portions of your protocol for your records, and to be reviewed by your advisor. This includes:
a. Computer security plan
b. Outline of project and methods
c. Description of why restricted-use data is necessary for your project. Be clear and succinct in describing your research question, method, supporting literature, and why your project is a contribution in which analyzing the restricted-use data in necessary. This description is important, since reviewers from other fields may be reading your protocol, and you want to clearly communicate your project, especially to those less familiar with your specific research.
5. You will then submit your protocol for approval by the IRB. Once this is complete and approved, you will then complete the data license application from whichever restricted-use data source you are using (for example, the Institute of Education Sciences, Department of Labor, etc.) At this stage, the research office can assist with next steps if needed.
6. General advice: Ask around! Did your advisor or mentor previous use restricted-use data? Or another professor in your department, or another department? Ask for help about how the application process has gone for others.
7. More advice: When in doubt, just keep pestering and asking for help. In my experience, the bottleneck was finding physical space (i.e. a secure office space). But, asking and reminding proved very useful is finding a small, secure office space for using my data.
8. Helpful clarification: Many restricted-use data licenses require the applicant to hold a PhD, so you will need your advisor or professor to assist in your application. They will then specify you are a data user on the license agreement.
As a PhD student at a department without dedicated resources for secure data, it can feel like more “prestigious” programs have a leg up when it comes to accessing certain data. They do, but that should not deter you from a good research idea, and your advisors and professors are there to support you in pursuing that, especially if you are willing to put in the work of going through the license application process. I also look at it as a very good learning experience for when I apply for restricted-use data or similar research methods as an Assistant Professor, where I will once again have to learn the institutional processes and procedures.
Next steps after getting your data: PRINT THE USER MANUAL (if that feels feasible), find tutorials on your data, and look for replication code from others who have published with your data.

More writing about writing

I feel intrigued by this idea of “deep work” and limiting distractions, and the cognitive cost of those distractions. From experience in PhD world, it is certainly true that interruptions and distractions, including those tasks like email, can reduce work quality. But, I have also always found small “shallow work” to be important to start with as it builds momentum in the work process, sometimes. The tricky part though is to build that momentum and actually move into “deep work”:

I found this blog post about writing peer reviewed research to be very useful. The idea of building “deep work” writing into your schedule everyday has been really transformative for me in this dissertation process, and greatly reduced my anxiety around writing. I definitely went from binge writer to everyday writer in the past few years, or as this post puts it binge vs. incremental writing. Some days are just 30 minutes of “low hanging fruit” tasks like citations, writing a summary of a useful paper, etc, while other days are many hours of planning, writing, formatting, or doing metrics work. A research log is crucial- it is where I plan out my work, reflect on my work, log what I have completed, and look ahead. I also really like the advice of one paragraph per subject. It’s easy to get lost in academic writing, and spend several paragraphs just trying to prove you know one small particular thing, but being succinct usually means you actually understand what you are writing and can convey it simply: