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Dr. Gail Markle has a PhD in Sociology from Georgia State University and was a Certified Public Accountant for over 15 years. She and her husband had supported non-traditional students by donating $250,000  to Kennesaw State University.  In this episode, Dr. Gail Markle shared valuable insights about student loans based on her paper, Crushing Debt or Savvy Strategy? Financial Literacy and Student Perceptions of their Student Loan Debt.

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Chris Pratt: We have a really lovely guest today. I’m really excited for this episode. She was a certified public accountant for over 15 years. Then she earned her PhD in sociology from Georgia State University. Now she and her husband have donated $250,000 to Kennesaw State University to support non-traditional students, uh, where she now works. And her name is Dr. Gail Markle. How are you doing today, Dr. Markle?

Dr. Gail Markle: I’m great. Thank you so much for having me.

Chris Pratt: Yeah. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on and talk to us. Um, so you wrote, uh, a fabulous paper called Crushing Debt or Savvy Strategy? Financial Literacy and Student Perceptions of their Student Loan Debt. And this, this talks a lot about student loan debt and really college students undergrads from a sociological perspective. So could you talk about your transition from being a CPA to going into sociology? Why you did that and then what is Sociology?

Dr. Gail Markle: Sure. I think when I was a college student, I chose Accounting because a mentor that I had suggested it, and I thought as a woman back 40 years ago, it would been a good way for me to make a living. And it was great. It was fine until I was taking a marketing class and it was very theoretical. And I learned about some important Sociological theories in the course of learning about Economics. And I just thought, I don’t think I want to do Accounting anymore. I think I want to go off into more of a social science fields, like learn more about people. And it was just very interesting to me to answer your question about what sociology is. Sociology studies, the influence that society has on people, but it also conversely studies, the influence that people have on society. So it’s not just a one way street. As individuals, we influence the collective society. And then as individuals, we are considerably influenced by the collective society. It’s different than psychology because psychologists study the individual’s brain, individual’s thinking and as sociologists, we’re looking at people in general, people in groups, people in various demographic categories who are still trying to figure out how they think and why they think and how they behave as they interact with society. And as society interacts with them in a nutshell, that’s what we do.

Chris Pratt: And so, like I mentioned, you wrote this really awesome paper and I’m just gonna read a very short excerpt of it to get us started here. You said that more than half of the participants with student loans report feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or scared about their level of debt, more than half and half of the participants are very or extremely concerned about repayment of their loans. You also say that this is significant because stress related to student loan debt affects student’s mental health, impedes academic progress, and decreases persistence. So this is really important stuff. This is really impactful research. Could you talk a little bit about the background of this paper and what brought you to writing it?

Dr. Gail Markle: Well, okay. I have had been invited to present at the federal reserve on this topic, even though I hadn’t yet done any data collection on this topic. There was another paper I had done years ago that looked at barriers to degree completion among nontraditional students. So because of that paper, I got a call from the federal reserve to talk about financial literacy and student debts. And I thought, well, I can’t talk about this unless I do a research study and actually find out how it affects students. And that was the thing. If you look at a lot of the literature on student loan debt, it’s all written from the perspective of the institution, right? Either the banking institutions or the universities themselves, and nobody asks the students, or if you look at the literature, if you can call it that in the popular press, it’s nothing, but these very scary headlines like students are overburdened.

They all have a hundred thousand dollars worth of debt. They can’t get a job. They’ll never be able to pay it back. And I just thought, this must be terrible if students are really feeling this way. And then that’s what, of course, if I’m going to talk about this, I need to have some actual data about what is really occurring. And so once I…

Chris Pratt: Let’s use some science.

Dr. Gail Markle: Yeah, but yes, let’s use science exactly. Then I found out that, well, yes, people were very, very stressed and a lot of the people that were most highly stressed didn’t really need to be. But then on the other hand, there were some students that weren’t too stressed and those were the ones that really did need to be a little bit more stressed than they were. And it’s this burden of the repayment that is weighing heavily on them because it’s not just, how am I going to pay this debt back?

It’s, I’m never going to have a house I’m not ever going to have a fancy wedding. I’m not going to ever have a life as some of the students in the survey, put it so bluntly. So it really did weigh down on their mental health. And then they were also making some decisions that weren’t really effective in terms of degree completion. So they would go to the midway of the term, they would get one bad test score and they would drop the class because they had to keep a particular grade point average to keep their student loans and all these other things. Or they would take a higher course load thinking that they would be better off because they would get out sooner, not realizing that they couldn’t maintain the grades at such a high course load. And then you’d have others that were taking lower course loads thinking that they were going to be able to work more. And they were extending their length of time in college, which was also coming with some additional costs.

Chris Pratt: So it sounds like you’re saying that on either end of these extremes, bad decisions are being made.

Dr. Gail Markle: Yes. Chris Pratt: So can you tell us a little bit more about the actual survey that you did?

Dr. Gail Markle: Sure. I mean, I used a couple of, um, you know, we’ve we like to use scales that have already been vetted and proven to be reliable. So I use a scale that did measure financial literacy and it was asking things about if people understood what the APR was when you’re looking at credit card offers, what compound interest versus simple interest was the things about what type of products are covered by SDIC. So what many of us consider pretty simple questions. They are really not so simple if you don’t know the answer to them. Right? And so it was just a baseline consumer finance type question. So I asked that, and then since I wanted to know how people felt about their student loans, I asked the questions that blew me away because they’re supposed to have some type of training before they are even allowed to sign for a student loan. But I asked them if they could explain the difference between a subsidized and an unsubsidized student loans.

Chris Pratt: Ohh..

Dr. Gail Markle: That’s right, that’s hard, but you’re supposed to go to this training. I asked them if they knew exactly how much student loan debt they had incurred so far. And I asked them if they knew how much their monthly student loan payments were going to be after graduation. And then I asked them more individual questions about what percentage of their college expenses are going to be financed by student loans, who they received advice from about how to pay for college, how long they thought they were gonna bend, paying off their student debt and, um, how much they were working while they’re in school.

Chris Pratt: Yeah.

Dr. Gail Markle: And then questions about what decisions have you made about your education because of student loans. And these were the open ended questions. So the questions about specific dollar amounts and the financial literacy scale were forced, multiple choice questions. These other questions were open ended for, it was like a little mini interview, or they could really talk about how they felt.

Chris Pratt: Yeah. Okay. So you said some really key words there that I, I want to explain to our listeners. So the first one, well, I probably missed a couple, but the first one that I heard was FDIC. Can you explain why the FDIC is relevant to, you know, the average person?

Dr. Gail Markle: Oh yes, absolutely. So if you go into a bank and you deposit $10,000 into a checking account and your bank is federally insured to the FDIC, if something happens to the bank, it goes out of business, you will get your $10,000 back, but maybe you hear about this great online source that is paying what are rates now half a percent, 2%. So maybe this online source is paying 10% and you’re like, Oh my God, this is just a great opportunity, but it’s not an FDIC insured facility. And if they go out of business, you’re doomed, you don’t get your $10,000 back. So the FDIC is the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and it provides insurance. If the bank fails, you will get your deposits back.

Chris Pratt: Yeah. And the other thing you mentioned was subsidized versus unsubsidized, and this applies to student loans, but this could also apply to really any type of loan or debt. Could you explain the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans?

Dr. Gail Markle: Sure. And you’re correct in that this is really important. So if you have a subsidized loan, what that means is, so you, the minute you take out your loan, technically interest is accruing, right? So if you have a subsidized loan and the government is paying the interest while the student is in college, but if you have an unsubsidized loan, you’re responsible for the interest that begins accruing, as soon as the loan is taken out. Did I make, did I explain that?

Chris Pratt: Yeah. That’s a great explanation. So essentially what you’re saying is if I took out a loan for my freshman year of college and it’s, un-subsidized, it’s not subsidized, then interest starts occurring on it immediately, even though I don’t have to make any payments until after I graduate. But if it’s subsidized, then the government pays the interest for me. So that the principle, which is the original amount of the loan stays the same until I graduated and started having to make payments. And I believe a lot of subsidized loans are issued based on financial need. So just by simply filling out the FAFSA form, which we talk about on this show, make sure you fill it out. If you’re going to college, you have to fill it out every single year. Even if you don’t think you’re going to get anything from it, it’s completely free. The first time it might take you like 30 minutes. But every time after that, it takes like five minutes to update your information and your parents can update their information as well in just a few minutes. And it’s a really easy way to potentially get grants and subsidized loans. And they also have, I think everyone can get an unsubsidized loan. So it’s a great resource.

Dr. Gail Markle: Oftentimes if you’re applying for a scholarship, they want your facet as well. So it’s just a legitimate source of information.

Chris Pratt: I don’t think there’s any reason not to fill out the FAFSA. I can’t think of a good reason to

Dr. Gail Markle: I’ve had cases where it’s very difficult in perhaps there’s a noncustodial parent that hasn’t filed a tax return. There can be some really difficult issues in getting information and getting some parents that aren’t so supportive to fill that paperwork, because if you don’t get that information, you’re stuck. So I would certainly encourage people to start getting that information that they need for the FAFSA straight up.

Chris Pratt: Thank you for making that call out. Cause that’s really important. You do need your, your parents support. Okay. So you talked a little bit about some of these topics in your paper. You also talk about consumer socialization. What is consumer socialization and why is that relevant?

Dr. Gail Markle: Socialization is a sociological term. And from the moment we’re born, until we go to school, we’re socialized in the family. And socialization is a process whereby we learn how to engage with other people. We learn how to be human beings. Then once we go into school, we’re also socialized by our peers, our fellow students in elementary school and our teachers and our principals and all that. And so the more broader our experience with the world gets, we’re also being socialized with in each one of those new spheres, we go to college, we’re being socialized into how to be a college student. We got a job, we’re learning how to be in the workforce. So simply consumer socialization means how we learn how to be good or poor consumers. And that is directly unfortunately driven by our family circumstances. If our parents don’t pay the rent and they don’t have, uh, you know, concerns about providing for food and things like that, then we’re going to learn those same bad habits. But if we’re born into a family of savers and people that are paying the bills on time and are thinking about the future, then we’re more likely to adapt those social better consumer behaviors. And unfortunately, as we’re learning from students that they’re not really learning much of this really important information about how checking accounts work, how money works, what things cost, how to differentiate between a good buy and a poor buy, things like that. So consumer socialization is just how you learn about finances and money.

Chris Pratt: Yeah. And in your paper, you said, this is another excerpt said that although most participants had moderate to high scores on financial literacy, 78% and student loan awareness, 65.8% scales. They exhibit a lack of knowledge regarding the details of their own loans, which goes back to what we were just talking about. You know, not doing the difference between a subsidized unsubsidized loan, not knowing how much interest is accrued, what your payment’s going to be when you graduate. So consumer socialization is sort of something that I guess you would say happens to you. And there’s not much control you have over that, especially as a child, but it seems like there are some things you can do to educate yourself, to be better prepared to handle student loans, if you have them and to make the decision of, you know, what student loans to take out, if any, and just how to financial education in general.

Dr. Gail Markle: I agree, but we have this society where we’re growing up. We had this idea that math is hard as, especially for women, right? Um, and most people, if it’s not something that just really turns you on, it’s a real turn off to other people. It’s boring. People don’t want to learn about the difference between interest rates and subsidized and unsubsidized loans and all these things, even though they’re hugely important because they haven’t encountered them along the way, we don’t teach simple consumer math in middle school where I think it really shouldn’t be taught. So by the time you’re thinking about going to college, you’re not thinking about all these financial topics and all these terms that you’ve never encountered before. You’re thinking about where you’re gonna live. You’re thinking about what classes you’re going to take. You’re thinking about parties. And so this is just a drag and it’s, it’s really unfortunate because at this point, by the time you’re 18, this would take a lot of time and it really would be an education process.

Instead of if you just sort of learned about this in bits and pieces in middle school, and then in high school, if you had a really, maybe one semester brief course in consumer finance, I think it would just help immensely and not just for student loan debt, but I read a statistic the other day that said that 40% of Americans, not just young people, 40% of Americans feel that they have too much debt and a lot of credit card debt. People are just paying off the interest on that debt. They’ll never get away from it. So I just think that this idea of waiting until you’re going to college to educate yourself on consumer finance. Yes. It needs to be done, but it’s kind of a little late.

Chris Pratt: Right. And so from a sociological perspective, I can’t disagree with you, you know, a lot more about it than I do. I try to push the perspective that it’s never too late. And also, and I think you’ll agree with this. It’s never too early. And that’s what I think is really important because I think even kids in college, I love that word encountered, right? Even kids in college, they feel like I don’t need to care about this. So I’m not going to, right. That’s the mindset with, with a lot of things, with respect to kids in college. And, and honestly, even with grown adults, because they simply haven’t encountered it. I know for me, you know, I was very fortunate to, in middle school, we had this stock market game program. And so I was investing with stocks on paper. I was paper trading while it was on the computer, but I was investing a hundred thousand dollars of fake money into stocks, like Apple and Netflix and whatnot. And I got to see that I think 90% of the kids who played the stock market game lost money. Right. And so that was okay,

Dr. Gail Markle: Well, that’s how, that’s true.

Chris Pratt: Right? And so at 10 years old, I got to understand and familiarize myself with the stock market. So I’ve never been afraid of it. Well, actually I’m afraid of single stocks now, but I’ve never been afraid of the concept of investing and I’ve never tried to avoid it. And I’ve developed an interest in it as a, as a matter of fact, I’m clearly as evidenced by the show. I want to circle this back to what can kids do today in high school, college, or even afterwards, what do you think they should be learning about? Like if Dr. Markel could completely change the sociological world, what would kids be learning about, not necessarily when would they be learning it? But what is, what do you think is really important?

Dr. Gail Markle: I think it’s crucially important that people understand how to budget. They need to know exactly after tax what’s coming in and they need to know exactly what has to go out. And then they can decide what may go out. And this is different too, because you know, we used to have to balance on our checkbook every month on paper and all that. I don’t know anybody who does it anymore because we’ve got online banking and everything is just, just so abstract now. And maybe they could, I don’t know, it depends on their family, but maybe the parents could sit down with them every month and say, here are the bills. Here’s what we have to pay. Some people don’t want that level of disclosure for their children. Cause I guess they want to protect their children. But if you could learn what actually it means to have to decide between, do I pay A, or do I pay B because I only have X amount of dollars. I think that would make people really see it as a much more real thing than just this finance, this abstract concept. But, um, the budgeting that would be crucial as if people could learn that

Chris Pratt: And budgeting. I mean, the basics of budgeting are really simple, right? You want more money coming in than going out. Right. And it’s just, it’s really just addition.

Dr. Gail Markle: Yes. And it’s planning and it’s discipline, you know? Right. Maybe I’m just going to have to make my own coffee for a whole week.

Chris Pratt: It’s being able to accept when you can’t do something or when you need to come up with a creative way or do some more research to figure out how you can do something. Like for instance, going to college, right. I don’t have enough money. So I’m just going to follow the herd and, you know, take out student loans to go to the school that I find most interesting just because I can, and that’s the easiest thing to do. So I want to shift back to the student loan thing for people who are just starting to go to college, what do you think is the reason why most students jump into student loans without understanding what they’re getting themselves into?

Dr. Gail Markle: Well, I think we’ve got to look at two groups of people here, first generation students, and then students whose parents and grandparents who has possibly has gone to college. So I think we’re in this era where we have this mentality that everybody has to get a college degree. That’s not really the case. So we’ve got that. But I think especially first generation students are increasingly at risk because they feel this pressure that they have to go to college. And I’m sure that they do, but this pressure to go to the dream school, that is something that is really, I think whether it’s peer pressure or social pressure or whatever, but this is really got away from us. I think that people need to be able to figure out what’s the best school that they can afford to go to. And then also, depending on what, what you want to do, you want to be a teacher.

You don’t need to be taking on a hundred thousand dollars worth of debt because no matter what school you’re going to, that you’re going to only make X amount of dollars. You should be able to know what generally the salary level is for the degree that you want to get. Regardless of whether you go to the most prestigious school or a state school, I would really encourage people to really think about what they’re going to do when they graduate. What’s their job, what’s it going to pay? And therefore, maybe you don’t go to the best school that you can get into. Maybe you go to the school that you would only have to take a smaller amount of loan to get into. And then also there’s nothing wrong with going to community college for the first year or two, because when you have your job and you’re working, they ask you where’d you graduate, where’d you get your degree from? And you just tell them where you got your degree from. You don’t have to say, well, I spent two years at community college, even though there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I mean, there, you could get all your gen ed credits at a very reasonable cost and then transfer with a really good grade point average. So then when you do get a student loan, you wouldn’t be paying for so long cause you would have taken out so much less.

Chris Pratt: Yeah. This is really hard. I think back to just when I was in high school, this is really hard for someone who is graduating high school to conceptualize, like what is my life? It’s hard enough to conceptualize what is my life going to be in college and then to conceptualize and rationalize and make a rational decision based on how is this going to affect me as an adult? When I graduated from college and you know, 10, 20, 30 years down the line, that’s just something that’s really difficult for a high school student to really realize. And so I think one of the things that your research reflects is that they tend to fall back on what their parents do. And you talked about this earlier in what their parents teach them, right? Because they just haven’t encountered it like you said.

Dr. Gail Markle: And we have to understand that each generation they’re not living in the same context in which their parents lived, especially millennials now who have come out of their college years in the recession, where there was, you know, high unemployment and the jobs that were available, unfortunately didn’t pay very well. So you can’t compare say I’m a baby boomer. So my millennial daughters, we cannot compare anything because I came out of school, jobs were plentiful. It made a good salary, baby boomers when they were young, adults were making a lot more than millennials, as young adults are now, you know, adjusted for inflation. Right. And so you can’t even get good advice from your parents unless your parents are, you know, in the financial industry, you know, um, you know, your parents could say, well, I worked my way to school. You know, you can do that. It’s not possible. Yeah. Things are just different.

Chris Pratt: Yeah, it’s definitely a challenging issue. And in your paper you say that financial education in high school improves financial literacy. Actually it’s a reference to another paper by Shim (et al., 2010), but only 40 States provide personal finance curriculum in high school. And we talked to Dr. Carly Urban about the fact that requirements vary widely and the requirements have a significant impact on student outcomes, right? So only five States require a full semester of instruction. Six states require 15 hours or more in 29 States require less than 15 hours. And you take the view in this paper that by college, it’s almost too late from a sociological perspective. And, uh, I thought that was really interesting because it aligns with a lot of other research I’ve read about high school kind of being the last battleground to get students, uh, educated. That is not to say though, that if you’re in college or you’ve graduated from college or you’re in your forties, fifties, whatever, that it would not be valuable for you to educate yourself financially and that you can’t do it. You’ve completely, can you as an individual, you can take a ton of value from that. So I just, I just want to reiterate that as scientists, we may look at the numbers and say, Hey, it’s, you know, once you hit college, it’s too late, but as an individual, you can always, uh, drive yourself forward and learn more and do better for yourself and for the people that you love. So

Dr. Gail Markle: Yes, and it’s imperative, you have to do it because you, if you have children, what are they going to be learning? Where are they going to learn? They’re learning from your mistakes or whatever. And definitely, I mean, we have, you know, laws and remedies for people to get themselves out of some deep debt holes that they’ve done for themselves. So I’m definitely not saying, Oh, it’s over, too late, game game over. And also, this is what I understand why we are not teaching this in high school because we don’t want all of our citizens to get good jobs and pay taxes and not be a burden.

Chris Pratt: Right. I think there’s hope for this. There are a lot of like memes and things on social media and whatnot, and Gen Zers and millennials are very privy to, I think, personal finance being important. I don’t think everyone necessarily knows exactly what to do or spends a lot of time paying attention to it. But, you know, I think everyone has that shared criticism of education that it doesn’t teach enough practical skills about, you know, how do you “balance a checkbook?” So how do you budget? How do you, uh, manage loans and, and how do you invest in things like that? So I think there is hope for the future and I’m excited for the future. And I think that we certainly have made some progress and some mistakes along the way.

Dr. Gail Markle: Yeah. I think the young people that I know and that I teach and that I’m related to are amazing, you know, they’re vibrant, they’re engaged, they have some social awareness that maybe other generations haven’t had. So I’m certainly not discounting them at all. Um, I just think maybe we need to provide them with some tools earlier on and the new newer generations as well. So this doesn’t become a burden to them.

Chris Pratt: Absolutely. Thank you so much again. Everyone, this is Dr. Gail Markle. We’ll put her paper in the show notes again, it’s called Crushing Debt or Savvy Strategy? Financial Literacy and Student Perceptions of their Student Loan Debt. Thank you so much for coming on Dr. Markel.

Dr. Gail Markle: Well, great. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity.

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