The Archaeology Education Financing Paradox

What is the paradox cultural resource management archaeologists face when thinking about getting an education?Let me tell you a story about how I used money to buy the education (and simultaneously) the social proof that allows me to do cultural resource management archaeology today.

Back in 1997, after finishing high school, I enrolled in my local college—Boise State University—and started pursuing a lifelong dream of becoming an archaeologist. I didn’t waste time applying to various undergraduate programs because, at the time, I’d already decided I was going to join the Navy if college didn’t pan out. I got pretty good grades my first year in school, realized I wasn’t stupid, and decided I would stay in school. The U.S. Navy had been around for a couple hundred years and probably wasn’t going anywhere, so if I didn’t become an archaeologist I could always enlist after graduation.

The undergraduate tuition at BSU continually crept upward throughout the time I was attending and I realized that it would never be cheaper to get an undergrad degree. I think it cost about $1,000 per semester for in-state tuition when I graduated in 2001. I worked my way through school making pizzas, delivering dry cleaning, and pushing shopping carts while also living on my own. I didn’t have to take out any loans for my undergraduate degree.

In 2002, I decided to get serious about a career in archaeology and knew I wanted to focus on historical archaeology. It seemed like, even back then, nobody wanted to hire an archaeological technician without a Master’s degree. I applied to three schools this time and was accepted by the University of Pennsylvania and University of Idaho. The University of Nevada-Reno turned me down. I became a Vandal.

Tuition continued to creep upward while I was attending Idaho but it hadn’t reached the insane level of other schools at the time (ahem, California). In-state graduate tuition at Idaho was somewhere around $2,500 a semester when I graduated in 2005. I took out my first loans at this time to cover grad school and account for the fact that it is nearly impossible to find a decent job in Moscow, Idaho. I finished grad school with some debt, but it wasn’t as bad as many of the other people I’ve met. Nevertheless, I still haven’t paid it all off.

After doing CRM archaeology for a decade, I decided the time was right to make a go of a PhD. I wasn’t getting any younger and decided I could use a break from contract archaeology. I also had a number of research interests that were unlikely to be fulfilled as long as I stayed in CRM. In 2013, I was fortunate enough to be accepted to the Anthropology program at the University of Arizona. I am currently ABD but I’ll probably still be in the program until the spring of 2017. In my personal opinion, tuition at Arizona is crazy and only getting crazier. In-state tuition is $12,000 per academic year for graduate school, $6,000 each semester, not including the law or medical schools which are even more expensive. Out-of-state tuition is $30,400 per year or $15,200 each semester!

Most PhD students do not pay full tuition because we get fellowships or tuition waivers for TAing and teaching classes. However, Master’s students rarely get departmental support or tuition waivers and end up paying retail for their degrees. I got support and still had to take out a some student loans to cover summer unemployment, daycare for my kids, and provide a cushion for my family. It will end up to being a fair chunk of change, but my loan debt, including what I still owed for my MA, won’t be close to what many PhD students face upon graduation.

Throughout my collegiate experience, I’ve seen tuition go through the roof. It cost me about $700 to pay for a semester of undergraduate studies when I started at BSU in 1997. UArizona was already way above that back then. These days, if I didn’t get a tuition waiver I wouldn’t be able to afford to go back to college. Dropping $12,000 a year is something I’d be unwilling to do at this stage in my life, but I realize the stresses many graduate students are facing in order to create the careers they want to have.

Here’s the paradox of being an archaeology careerist:
1. You need experience to get the jobs.
2. You can’t get the job that will earn you the experience without an education because there is so much competition.
3. So, you need to get the education without having the job to pay for it.

Here’s the paradox of paying for a college degree:
1. It costs money to get the education you need in order to have a good chance of getting the job you want.
2. But, that education costs a lot of money and those costs are only increasing which means it will never be cheaper to get a degree than today.
3. However, your money will never be worth as much as it is today. The money you spend today is worth more than the money you will earn tomorrow because we live in a world with fiat currency.
4. So, you need to weigh the benefit of paying and borrowing for an education in 2016 dollars to get you a job that will pay you in 2020 dollars. This is where a lot of college students miscalculate.

How Our Money Works
Fiat currency makes the world go round. In case you didn’t know, banks conjure money through a process called the fractional reserve system. If you did this at your house, you’d be called a counterfeiter. If an accountant did this, they’d be arrested for “cooking the books.” When the finance industry does it, they’re lionized “Engines of Commerce.” The difference is in the details.
This blog post is not enough space to go into the intricacies of how our fiat currency works; nor do I have enough room to debate whether or not this is a good or bad thing. But, here’s how a bank creates money in a fractional reserve system like the ones we have in the modern world:

Sounds pretty straightforward. People and companies borrow money to pay for stuff like workers’ wages and a college education and the bank is only required to keep a certain amount in reserve. This allows them to loan out more money to other people so we can all keep doing the stuff we like to do. It all keeps flowing at a copacetic pace and all is well. But, did you notice that little part in the video about governments borrowing money that isn’t counted in the overall money supply? The video simply states that in a matter-of-fact way but does not explain why governments aren’t held to the same standard as private companies or individuals.

The biggest reason why governmental borrowing doesn’t count is because they print the money. Currency is issued by government treasuries and this is what we use to settle debts. However, we always need to remember that the money we use today has no intrinsic value. It is not worth anything other than our faith that it is worth something. This kind of money is called fiat currency. It’s value lies in the fact that we need some sort of device that we can trade in order to get stuff.
Still confused? Here’s how the value of our money is created:

The big problem with our country is:

• Uncle Sam doesn’t bring in enough tax money to pay how much he owes the bank so he borrows money just like we do to fill the shortfall.
• He’s also charged interest on his loans like we are (sound familiar?)
• Unfortunately, the money Sam borrows today isn’t enough to pay the interest on yesterday’s debt. Also, what Uncle Sam does with that money doesn’t increase revenue enough to cover this gap.
• So, Uncle Sam prints more money to pay the interest. This waters down the value of our money forcing Uncle Sam to borrow even more money next time.
• Rather than cutting spending or raising taxes, Sam has to print more money to cover this new loan. This makes him borrow even more next time.

That’s how we owe over $14 trillion to the Federal Reserve Banks. Here’s a video that explains the conundrum more eloquently:

The Wage Slavery of a College Education
A lot of college students have slipped into the deep grave that our country has. Just like Uncle Sam, some of us borrow way too much for school. Unlike Uncle Sam, we cannot simply print off money to pay for this debt.

We are currently experiencing a student loan bubble. Today, the government is handing out student loan money like it’s going out of style. (It also may be related to the fact that Uncle Sam owes more money than he brings in so distributing all this student loan money is a way to increase the fractional reserve system without having to borrow more from the central banks. They’re outsourcing their obligations to us. Thanks Unky Sam.) This also enables universities to keep increasing tuition, which simply forces students to borrow more. The cycle continues as explained below:

We are approaching an inflection point, however, where the increased education does not pay for itself because too many graduates end up underemployed. Beggars can’t be choosers, so recent graduates take whatever job they can get, including ones that do not allow them to pay for their student loans. The plethora of educated Americans willing to take low wages only enables employers to see how low they can go with regard to paying their employees and offering benefits. They also have incentive to get rid of experienced, high-wage employees, causing many of these folks to go back to school, take out loans, and keep blowing up the bubble.

At the same time, Uncle Sam is busy printing money and watering down the value of the dollars we’re making. This makes it even harder to pay off the $1 trillion in student loans we owe because we’re going to get paid in that future fiat money that is worthless worth less.
Millions of Americans are wage slaves because of their college education, myself included. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. It also does not have to be as onerous.

Emancipation Can Happen
It is possible to pay off your college debt. There are hundreds of ways, but they are all easier if you do not take too much debt in the first place. New CRMers can expect a lot of competition for low-wage, entry-level positions. This is no different than most fields. As I have calculated in previous posts, your life can be made much easier if as an entry-level CRMer if you do not have to make massive student loan payments after graduation. In fact, student loan obligations can be the difference between pursuing a career in archaeology and taking another path.

I) The first step toward not getting enslaved by your student loans is choosing to attend the best university you can. By “best” I do not mean most prestigious. When it comes to best, universities have a clear hierarchy:
1. The one that will offer you the most scholarship/fellowship money, and/or,
2. The one with the cheapest tuition, and
3. Is located in a settlement where you can get a job.
It should go without saying that you need to attend an accredited, reputable university. Many online colleges do not fit this definition, so do your homework.

What if you’re not currently attending a school that does not fit this definition? You either need to finish as quickly as possible or lower your financial obligation with scholarships, fellowships, and/or other forms of money. You can save money by decreasing the amount of time you spend in school by loading your schedule with as many classes as you can handle without suffering a nervous breakdown. This breaking point will vary for each individual, but since a dollar today is literally worth more than a dollar next year, you will be saving a lot of money by speeding through your education.

Similarly, the number and quantity of scholarship dollars each student qualifies for will vary but it is essential that you do everything you can to land some university funding that doesn’t require you to trade your time for dollars (i.e. laboring for it). Ramit Sethi can show you a tried and true technique for landing thousands of dollars in scholarship cash. Here’s the template for how I landed thousands of dollars in grant funding as a PhD student—enough to fund my dissertation research and cover a lot of my conference fees. You have to do whatever you can to: 1) decrease your financial obligations and 2) hasten the pace through college.

II) Even with these strategies, most students will probably need to take out loans at some point in their education. There’s no problem with that as long as you are very, very, very judicious in how you use student loans. Take out less money than you think you’ll need. Make sure you remember every dollar spent today is more than one dollar tomorrow and that future dollar will have to come out of your pocket after graduation. Also, you’ll probably make much less than the Bureau of Labor statistics list for your desired job field. Plan for that. That reality means it will be that much more difficult to pay off your loans. Unless, you follow my final tip…

III) You. Must. Start. A. Side. Hustle. Period.

You cannot rely on any employer to cover all your monetary needs. Based on the way Uncle Sam is mortgaging your future, you cannot depend on the government to give you Social Security, a pension, or any other form of support (Except for military-grade weapons. We always have money for that.)

Finally, you cannot rely on a 401k or IRA to cover all of your retirement needs. A retirement account is an excellent start, but you can’t believe that is all you’re going to need when you get aged because of that whole fiat money/inflation thingy. Ask anyone’s parents who lost their nest egg in the Great Recession if they could have invested that money better. I’m sure quite a few are a penny wiser now. Learn from their mistakes. Multiple streams of income are what you need.

There are an unlimited number of side hustles you can start while a graduate student, early careerist, or bringing in some “big ends” through full-time employment. There are also an unlimited number of suggestions on how others have made money through side hustles floating around on the Internet. Just know: what has worked for others will not work exactly the same for you because you are a completely different person with different experiences, circumstances, needs, and goals. Always be cautious of any investment or entrepreneurial advice.

I am not the best person to give you any suggestions on what kind of side hustle you should start, but make sure of one thing: You need to get paid for your service/effort/product/ideas/ect. That’s it. A side hustle is something you do that makes you some extra money and the sky is literally the limit these days. It would be great if your side hustle dovetailed with your experience and education as a CRMer but that should not hold you back. We all know how to do something that others would like to know how to do. We also all have skills, or the potential to acquire skills, that could potentially earn us money. Even if all you do is drive for Uber on every other weekend, you need to start doing something to bring in a little extra money. Get used to this idea our ancestors knew all too well.

Remember learning about Darwinian evolution? Remember that the Homo genus is here today because we are flexible, smart, and can adapt to all kinds of environments? Remember the concept of uniformitarianism? The idea that the same processes that exist in the present created geologic world in the past and vice versa? Nothing has changed. You still live in an ever-changing world where your ability to adapt is a proxy for your ability to survive. Start your hustle today.
The Formula for Financial Emancipation is Simple but Difficult
A long time ago, I learned the secret recipe for financial success. It’s in the book “The Richest Man in Babylon,” which is almost 100 years old.

Here’s all you’ve got to do:

Save at least 10% of your income >> Control your spending >> Make profitable investments and increase your ability to earn >> Protect your treasure from loss >> and Assure yourself a future income.

Knowing this formula is not the same as making it work for you. Even though I’ve known those facts for over 20 years, I can tell you they are harder to accomplish than meets the eye. The simple process of getting a college degree is one of those double-edged swords that could bring profit or loss. It could increase your ability to earn or decrease it. It could also hinder your future income potential.

Buying an expensive college degree for more than it’s worth is something many of us have done or are in the process of doing. The only solution for this folly is increasing your income to cover the spread. Unlike the federal government, you can’t just print off more money to pay your bills. Even if you could, is that how you would like to live? Diminishing the returns of future generations without contributing to the common good by adding value to the world in which we live? Printing fiat money is something bankers, politicians, and bureaucrats are built for. Not real-life, everyday people that are the bedrock of American society like yourself.

The only way you can pay off your debt and escape wage slavery is by spending less than you earn and constantly increasing the amount of money you make. A side hustle is one solution everyone in cultural resource management archaeology can create that will have lasting, positive benefits. Learning how to make low-fee investments is another way. You can afford the education necessary to make it in this field but you will have to think outside the box when it comes to streams of income.

What do you think about solving the Archaeology Education Paradox? Write a comment below or send me an email.

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