For Many Artists, That $10K of Student Debt Relief is a Drop in the Bucket

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Woman in blue suit holds sign saying "cancel deb, change lives" with capitol in background
A woman at press conference held to celebrate President Biden's student debt relief plan on Sept. 29, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for We, The 45 Million)

Soon, an estimated 20 million people can begin the process of wiping out their student debt. President Biden’s debt relief plan — its application expected in late October — will provide those earning less than $125,000 with $10,000 of federal student debt relief, or up to $20,000 for those who received a federal Pell Grant.

But for many artists who pursued master’s degrees to advance their careers, $10,000 won’t even address the interest that’s accrued on their loans.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” says Oakland writer and musician Maddy Clifford. “It’s like crumbs, basically.” Clifford, who received an MFA in poetry from Mills College, currently has over $100,000 in student loan debt.

Clifford, who took out loans in 2006 and 2010 — when she was 19 and 22 — sees the whole student loan system as predatory. “If I was that age and I went to a bank and tried to get a [personal] loan for that much money, they would have said no.” Now, at 35, she carries a debt that seems impossible to pay down.

For Bay Area artists, especially those who entered graduate school around the 2007–2009 Great Recession, pursuing a master’s degree meant the chance to temporarily exit a dismal job market and, ideally, reemerge two years later with more earning power. Many aspired to teaching jobs in higher education, where an MFA is nearly always required: taking out loans was an investment in their futures as working artists.


But student debt has delayed those futures. The world of private loan servicers and repayment plans is confusing and demoralizing. And those hoping to take advantage of existing federal debt relief through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program — which promises total cancellation of student debt through the equivalent of 10 years of full-time work in nonprofit or government positions — face notoriously low rates of acceptance.

And while 45 million Americans (about one in seven) have some amount of student debt, that burden is not shared equally. The student debt crisis disproportionately affects Black women, who graduate with larger amounts of student debt only to encounter a gender and racial wage gap that impacts their earning potential.

The reality of the student debt crisis has more and more people calling for not just $10,000 or $20,000 in student debt relief, but a cancellation of all student debt — and a complete overhaul of an educational system that has become prohibitively expensive.

Tall white walls front trees as student walk near green grass
Students walk onto the Mills' Oakland campus — now known as Mills College at Northeastern University — through the main gates. (Steve Babuljak/Mills College)

‘If I wanted to teach, I needed an MFA’

In a society that treats the arts like a hobby, master’s degrees provide artists with a legitimacy they often crave. “I really felt like it was my only option at the time because I just wanted desperately to be taken seriously as an arts professional,” says Clifford of her decision to enroll at Mills. It worked — to a point. After graduating in 2012, she began teaching, eventually working with WritersCorps to teach poetry to incarcerated youth.

But for many other MFA recipients, the promise of teaching jobs hasn’t materialized. The rise of “adjunctification” — hiring part-time and lower-paid faculty in lieu of tenured positions — has turned many artists into adjunct commuters who traverse the Bay Area, knitting together a semblance of full-time work at various colleges and universities.

“I was told, art world-wise, if I wanted to teach, I needed an MFA,” says Steuart Pittman, who graduated from Mills with an MFA in visual art in 2009. But 13 years later, with the future of Mills’ MFA program uncertain after the college was acquired by Northeastern University, Pittman questions the value of that advice.

“So many of my friends that were teaching [at Mills] got laid off. It’s like I found out Santa Claus isn’t real,” says Pittman. “Like, my MFA is really just a piece of paper in a lot of ways because Mills is no longer what it was.”

As arts schools struggle financially nationwide, that sentiment is an increasingly common one. Locally, alums of both Mills and the recently shuttered San Francisco Art Institute are recipients of a perverse honor: their student debt will outlast the programs they took out loans to attend.

Despite the student debt he carries, Pittman doesn’t regret attending graduate school. “I had an amazing run at Mills, an amazing time with truly special people that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life,” he says. “And I do think that no matter the cost the proverbial life in the arts is really one worth living.”

Clifford is less sure about her degree. While the program increased her earning potential, she says the entire structure of MFA programs is catered to those with racial and financial privilege. “It just started to dawn on me that I wasn’t going to be getting the support that a working-class person needs in order to [succeed],” she says.

“Graduate school can be very lonely,” Clifford adds. “It’s not always a safe environment for people of color. ... So then on top of that, you have this debt.”

Factory-looking facade lit from middle, spilling onto darkened sidewalk
CCA offers a number of graduate programs, including an MFA in comics and a master's in interaction design. (Courtesy CCA)

‘The interest is the biggest scam’

While the average amount of federal student debt held by U.S. borrowers is $37,667, four of the six people I interviewed for this story have over $100,000 in debt, a result of expensive private schools, large loan amounts and crushing interest rates.

For Oakland artist Em Meine, her original principal upon graduating from California College of the Arts was $99,441.33. Eight years later, she owes $115,766.80 (and counting; her interest rate is 7.125%). She has never missed a payment on her income-driven repayment plan.

Meine estimates she’s paid somewhere around $30,000 since graduating — but she says it doesn’t feel real.

“It feels like the saddest form of funny money,” Meine says. “It’s like this really sad joke. ... I can’t imagine not charging more to a credit card, making a payment towards it every month, and only having [the balance] get bigger.”

Dave Sandoval, who graduated from CCA in 2011, agrees: “The interest is the biggest scam.”

(Addressing this directly, one aspect of the Biden-Harris administration’s relief plan proposes to cover unpaid monthly interest for a borrower on an income-driven repayment plan. This way, someone’s debt balance won’t grow as long as they’re making monthly payments.)

Since graduating, Sandoval’s student debt has increased from around $150,000 to almost $200,000. Like Meine, he’s working towards his 10 years of public service loan forgiveness, but his progress was hampered, he says, by a misleading loan servicer. For years, his payments through the private company didn’t count towards the PSLF program.

“I just didn’t know any better,” he says, pointing out that now, after complaints and lawsuits, there’s much more conversation and visibility around which payments to which loan servicers qualify for PSLF.

Sandoval says he calls the Department of Education about once a month, waiting on the line for three to five hours to talk about his case. The closer he gets to reaching his 120 payments, the more anxious he is about the entire program, which was created by an act of Congress in 2007 and could cease to exist at any time.

“I need to get this off my name, off my credit score, because you just don’t know,” Sandoval says. “And I don’t trust the program from the kind of issues I’ve had with it.”

Student loan debt holders demonstrate outside the White House staff entrance on July 27, 2022. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for We, The 45 Million)

‘This huge weight’

The PSLF program, onerous and complicated for even the most organized individual, can also feel like the great white whale of debt relief. In 2018, data showed the Department of Education had rejected 99% of PSLF applications. That number hasn’t improved much since then.

Martin Strickland, who received a master’s in exhibition and museum studies from SFAI, has been submitting paperwork to the PSLF program since 2016, but only last year did he receive any sort of confirmation from the Department of Education.

“It’s just like completely sending it off into the void,” he says, imagining a P.O. box “overflowing with the hopes of many, many, many, many, many students.”

And when — if — he succeeds? “It would feel like this huge weight lifted off me that I’ve been thinking about for over a decade — almost every day,” he says.

Pittman expressed a similar sentiment about the mental burden. “It’s so many of us that have it, and then we feel guilty and sad and stressed about it,” he says.

For Clifford, being open about her student debt and connecting with others — especially Black women — on the issue has been an energizing force in recent years. In 2020, she discovered the Debt Collective, a union of debtors that grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Among other action items, the group calls for a coordinated student debt strike, writing: “The government doesn’t need our money, but they are counting on our cooperation in our own exploitation.”

“The more I started researching the policy, the more I realized how profoundly unjust the student loans are,” Clifford says. For her, the $10,000 in student debt relief is a sign that even greater reforms are possible. The next step, Clifford says, is “making a conscious, deliberate choice to say we’re not paying this back because it’s illegitimate, because college should be free, it shouldn’t cost as much money.”

And though any relief is welcome, this one-time gesture doesn’t prevent future generations from having to take out the same kind of loans to advance their own lives and careers.

While trying to track down someone — anyone — who had achieved public service loan forgiveness, I met artist Lauren Bartone, who after years of calling and writing the Department of Education had her remaining $14,000 of student debt canceled in August. “I was so shocked when it finally happened,” she wrote.


About two weeks later, she took out new loans to send her daughter to college.