Student loans and cultural resource management archaeology

Student loans drag on cultural resource management is real“Control thy expenses” The Richest Man in Babylon (George Cayson, 1926)

Right after saving a portion of your income, this is the second rule to generating wealth in the landmark personal finance book “The Richest Man in Babylon.” It’s also essential for anyone who wants to stay out of debt collection hell.

But, living within our means is a difficult thing to do in our modern world of fast, easy credit. Archaeologists are not the only ones dealing with this fact of life ( Indeed, the tradeoff between our material desires, the necessities of life, and the wages we bring in has always been an integral part of American society.

A significant portion of my income goes to paying debt like a mortgage, credit card bills, and student loans. Unlike the first two forms of debt, I feel like the loans I took out to attend college enable me to live the lifestyle I currently enjoy. Unfortunately, these loans and other forms of debt also restrict me from having more freedom in my life.

Student loans strongly influence the kind of person who chooses to embark upon a career in cultural resource management archaeology. Those with huge student loan payments are basically omitted from the industry because it may take more than a decade of experience to bring in an income adequate to make the payment on six figures of student loan debt. With the cost of college constantly rising, many of the smartest and most capable Millennials choose not to even entertain the idea of becoming an archaeologist, even though it may have been their dream career.

Student loans drag on the industry in other ways too. Attrition rates among field techs are extremely high because the job doesn’t pay enough to cover personal expenses, which, oftentimes, includes student loan debt.

Student loans are a double-edged sword: They enable CRM archaeology while also hindering it. Many of us know what this is like.

Can you pay your bills doing archaeology?

That’s the question on the mind of anyone who has embarked on the Way of the Trowel. How the fu*k am I going to be able to afford to eat and pay my bills while doing a job I love?

This is a personal question that must be answered by every one of us, but the answer is easier for those who have massive student loan debt. They’re probably not going to do archaeology because it’s not going to pay enough to cover their loan debt, which is a form of debt that can’t be erased through bankruptcy. For those saddled with huge debt, CRM isn’t going to be a possibility.

What if you took out too much in student loans?

I wish we lived in a world where American teenagers were forced to learn two things in high school: 1) civics (i.e. how to be a responsible citizen), and 2) personal finance (i.e. how to be an asset to your country instead of a liability). American government and home economics used to be part of high school curriculum across the country. Our grandparents and many of our parents knew what it meant to be a good American citizen and how to manage their finances, but now we seem to want to create young people who don’t know how their country’s political system works or how to balance a checkbook. Perhaps there’s a reason for this….

When it comes to student loans, I’m not sure if there is a formula for determining how much you should take out to pay for undergrad, Master’s, or a PhD. I feel like you shouldn’t take out as little as possible. Pros at U.S. News and World Report suggest you shouldn’t accrue student loan debt that won’t require more than 10 percent of pretax wages on student loans.

This is hard to calculate for young archaeology careerists who, if they’re lucky, can only expect to get paid about $18.00/ hour. According to this advice you shouldn’t take out more than $89,856 in total student loan debt including interest and servicing costs if you plan on paying them off through the extended plan (25 years) ($18.00/hr. = $37,440 annual salary means $1497.60 paycheck = $2,995.20 monthly = $299.52 in student loan payments each month). (FYI: I would never suggest a twentysomething take on $90,000 in debt for anything less than a house. So, there’s no way I’d tell a student to take out that much for a college degree in anthropology.)

Most college grads finish school with about $21,000 in loans, which is well below the recommended $89,856 but archaeological technicians cannot be assured 50 weeks of work each year, or $18.00/hr., or that they will find a job at all. This is why it’s absolutely critical anthro students take out as little as possible for college. And, they should go to the most affordable accredited university in a city where they can afford to get a part-time job paying at least $15.00/hour (Working for less than $15 only adds to the downward spiral we’re experiencing in our country. Ideally, everyone would get paid at least $15.00/hour and be part of a labor union but that’s not where we’re at as a country. Do your best to #fightfor15 [] by not taking jobs for less than that if you can, regardless of what the livable wage calculators tell you.)

Being able to pay your daily expenses (room, board, food, beer, ect.) from a part-time job will help you decrease the amount of loans you have to take out. You should not be borrowing money for anything that doesn’t directly contribute to your degree (tuition, software, books, trainings, ect.) Borrowing for intangibles, things you won’t have after graduation like a nice apartment, travel, or food, will hurt you after you graduate.

No matter what, do your best to borrow as little as possible.

How will you repay those loans?

Student loans in the “Age of Trump” means fewer loan options, fewer repayment options, and (possibly) a student loan monopoly that can do whatever it wants with your debt. The goal appears to be consolidating existing loan debt with a corporation that has been sued for cheating graduates in order to make it seem like things have been simplified. Your needs come second to political aims, which is another reason why it’s best to take out as little in student loans as possible.

There are a number of repayment options that many of you are aware of. I’m no financial adviser but my goal is to use a combination of personalized repayment mixed with enrolling in a loan forgiveness program. The goal is to repay my loans, which is ethical even if it isn’t desirable, while getting a little bit forgiven, if possible.

Here are some links to repayment strategies, but you are encouraged to connect with a student loan repayment specialist:

Standard loan repayment options

Personalized repayment options

Student loan forgiveness programs

How can you do CRM archaeology if you can’t afford to pay your student loans?

This is the question of the ages. Currently, there are more than enough educated CRMers to do the work but there may be trouble on the horizon. Barring the complete destruction of the industry through regulatory auditing by our “elected leaders,” CRM may face a situation where there simply aren’t enough CRMers to do the work.

College enrollment is declining in the United States. This is partially due to the collapse of the for-profit “university” system and the fact that adults over 24-years-old are able to find work again. Most curiously, high school graduates are deciding to forgo college right after graduation. Why wouldn’t you want to take out $21,000 to, hopefully, end up in a cubicle farm when you can do that right out of high school?

Liberal arts and humanities enrollments are also down. Inside Higher Ed states, “Between 2008 and 2016, for example, there was a 14 percent decline in enrollments in the humanities and an 8 percent decline in enrollments in the social sciences. At the same time, there was a 29 percent increase in enrollments in math and the sciences…” ( This is largely because today’s students see higher education as a means for getting a “good job,” which means they are only interested in studying things that will help them in high-paying industries like engineering, computer sciences, and medicine.

Who can blame today’s students for wanting to get their money’s worth? Tuition is constantly on the rise while wages are basically stagnant. If a college degree is the way to become or stay in the middle class, you need to get the kind of degree that will make that happen. For many, an anthropology degree simply isn’t the answer.

How student loans create drag on cultural resource management archaeology

The fact CRM is not seen as a high-paying career path is a disincentive for college students that may have wanted to do archaeology but are afraid they won’t be able to pay their bills in this career field. Media outlets consistently rank anthropology and the other social science/humanity majors as worse than other university majors that could lead to careers in higher paying fields. This bad press, in conjunction with perpetual cajoling from parents and other family members who also worry about career prospects for their young relatives, makes it seem like anthropology is a bad college major.

(NOTE: I by no means want to denigrate the brave, talented, and intelligent CMRers who have dedicated a serious portion of their lives to doing archaeology. You are no less than those who pursue a career in law, medicine, engineering, computer sciences, or any other high-paying career field.)

Unfortunately, the realities of the industry where most archaeologists work—cultural resource management—doesn’t help promote the cause of CRM as a viable career path. CRMers do not make much, especially in the beginning. Our positions are dependent upon contracts that are rooted in construction and governmental spending, which means they are unstable. All of us will experience being laid off, furloughed, or unemployed in some way.

Unstable careers are a reality for all Americans regardless of what they do for a living. We are currently experiencing a Second Gilded Age. Media sometimes churches this reality up with monikers like “the Creative Economy” or “the Gig Economy,” but all it really means is American employers have decided they are unable to take care of their employees. All of us will be laid off, downsized, or retired whether we like it or not. Doesn’t matter if you’re a high-paid programmer or dental technician. This is the direction our country is headed and it doesn’t look like we’re changing course any time soon.

With that reality in mind, it doesn’t make much sense to pursue a degree you don’t really care about just because you think you might make six figures after graduation. Doing stuff you don’t like and don’t care about isn’t really living. That’s a pathway towards depression and dissatisfaction regardless of what degree you earn.

So, why wouldn’t you follow your dreams and become an archaeologist? Because most of us live in the reality created by our minds. We all believe a college degree will land us a 3-bedroom, 2-bath houses with a spouse, some kids, and two cars. This “American Dream” is a difficult thing to shake even though it was the brainchild of advertising execs in the wake of World War II who wanted to figure out a way to sell land and homes to more Americans. That Dream has never been a reality for most Americans but you’d never guess that based on what you see on TV.

The problem is: Most young people cannot believe they can raise a family, have a home, and live a good life doing CRM archaeology. I’ll admit, its hard but not impossible. Right now, thousands of people are doing CRM and living the American Dream. They didn’t go into medicine or law or marketing or something else their grandparents told them to study. They did anthropology and are making a living with that degree.

However, pursuing this field to its fullest is only possible to those who did not take out too much in student loan debt. You won’t make it past field tech if you have $500/month in student loan payments to make. It’s not going to happen because you will need to do a job that makes more money regardless of how much you curb your expenses.

This is yet another drag on hiring, training, and maintaining aspiring young cultural resource management archaeologists. Companies cannot pay enough money to cover the bills of those who have too many expenses coming out of college. If you want to do archaeology, cultural resource management is your easiest pathway (and it’s not really that easy). You can only pursue this pathway if you can control your expenses, which means not borrowing too much for college.