Lee said she never expects to be debt-free, but she hopes that at some point, the government will step in to do something about the crisis. Rumberger and Cobb feel similarly. “It’s really hard to imagine paying off my loans,” Cobb said. “When I think of my debt in total numbers, it makes me laugh a lot…or cry a lot.” Foster sees debt in general as a form of “vulture capitalism,” and wishes people would stop paying as a means of rebelling against the current financial system.
When asked about the dream projects they would pursue if they didn’t have the burden of student debt, many artists replied with perfectly reasonable goals. Frigon said that “being able to scale back to just one job is the dream”; she added that she would rent a studio so she could work on a bigger scale. Cobb wants to travel to both idyllic and hellish places to photograph a series on contemporary readings of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Lee would also like to travel—to the Deep South to talk to people who have a lineage of slavery and who own and work off the land there.
Rachelle Vasquez can see herself paying off her remaining $10,000 in 10 years, but she doesn’t see her life changing much. “I love teaching, but maybe I could cut down to just one job,” she said. She also looks forward to prioritizing more experimental work, and not necessarily work she knows will sell; she’s been making a lot of scarves
to sell online to help pay her loans.
Fischer said he could see himself paying off his loans “when I’m very old,” but at that point, he also expects to have other kinds of debt, from buying a house or his daughter going to college. Coleman hopes to be done paying off his loans next year, but with a baby on the way, “the money I was diverting to loans may just end up in childcare.” For Coleman and countless others, the cycle of debt has become virtually impossible to escape.
Regrets and the broader impact of debt
Despite their often-depressing answers to questions about how student debt affects their lives, not one of the dozen artists interviewed for this story said they regretted their art education. Some wished they’d chosen a different school, but none regretted going to school in the first place or the subjects they chose to study.
“There’s an aura of privilege around student debt versus other kinds of debt,” Fischer said, “and there are more pressing issues that demand attention that are less abstract, like detaining kids at the U.S.–Mexico border.”
Yet student debt remains a huge problem, and several artists said they saw it as part of a larger means of systemic oppression, especially considering the convoluted nature of the bureaucracy surrounding it. This, they reasoned, is why it’s important for people to talk about their debt, create a community around it, and crush the misconception that people in debt “have behaved irresponsibly, and that their debt is their fault alone,” as Beery put it.
“Debt has political power,” Gokey added. “It connects us.”