What does it take to be a genius? Apparently some student loans.
The MacArthur Foundation announced the recipient of its prestigious Genius grant this week and at least one recipient said he had the funds earmarked for something familiar to millions of Americans — paying of student debt.
Jason De León, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan whose work focuses on the human experience of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, quipped to NPR that he would use some of the $625,000 to pay off his student loans. De Leon also told Time magazine that paying off student debt was part of a five point plan he had for the funds. The MacArthur Fellowship, dubbed the Genius grant, honors people with exceptional creativity and promise for future advances with a no-strings-attached grant to help them continue their work.
Though De León estimates he has less than $5,000 of his more than $30,000 debt load left, he said in an interview with MarketWatch, that he specifically chose to mention his student debt to draw attention to the different paths people to take to success in academe and elsewhere. He also plans to use some of the funds to set up a more permanent research facility in the field.
“I knew that the question was going to be asked, what was I going to do with this money,” De León said. “I strategically brought up the student loan thing because I wanted to highlight the fact that there are different kinds of professors in this world.”
As a first generation college student, De León was acutely aware of finances as he made his way through his academic career. He dropped out of UCLA for a period as an undergraduate and spent the next couple of years in the financial aid office trying to undue the consequences of that decision, he said. Even once he was back on track at school, De León said his financial situation still made college difficult.
“If it wasn’t for work-study, Pell grants, and student loans, I wouldn’t have been able to make it,” he said. “I vividly remember moments as an undergrade where I couldn’t buy textbooks,” De León said. He would borrower friends’ books when they were finished with them to cram before exams.
De León’s story highlights the challenges first-generation and low-income students often have to overcome to make it through college. He said his experience has pushed him to reach out to these students at the University of Michigan, where he teaches, in hopes of helping them understand and overcome the kinds of barriers they might face in college.
The experience of struggling financially though college is increasingly becoming the norm, even for other MacArthur Geniuses. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Broadway hit Hamilton, tweeted after he won the genius grant in 2015 that he paid off his wife’s student loans.
Dancer and choreographer Kyle Abraham told The New York Times he used the grant he won in 2013 to help pay off his $180,000 in student loans. Rising college costs and relatively stagnant wages over the past several decades means that these days roughly 70% of bachelor’s-degree recipients graduate with loans. And everyone from famous actors to presidential candidates are coping with student loans.
Unfortunately, most student-loan borrowers won’t receive a surprise windfall, like a Genius grant, that can help them pay off the debt. Instead, typical borrowers devote a portion of their paycheck to paying back their loans or use tools like the government’s income driven repayment program to manage their debt if they can’t afford it. Despite these options, some borrowers are still struggling — more than 1 million borrowers defaulted on their loans last year — indicating that workers, particularly young ones, may not be seeing the economic gains necessary to effectively pay back their debts.
De León said he’s hoping to use some of his fellowship money to ease the financial burden for students who want to study with him, perhaps through grants for summer field programs. “It was kind of a bureaucratic nightmare,” De León said of his student loan experience. “I totally see how people can get disillusioned by that.”