Caitlin Zaloom is an anthropologist at New York University. Her full title is “Associate Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis” and for the past seven years, she and a team of researchers have been interviewing 160 middle class parents and students who took out student loans in the US.
The result is a new book titled, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost, which gives readers a glimpse into the intricacies and nuances of what the American middle class is doing to afford higher education and how this is impacting their priorities, finances and lives.
Writing for The New York Times, Zaloom noted how paying for college today is markedly different than before and how this has “transformed the character of family life”. The financial requirement that has the potential to bankrupt families “is altering relationships between parents and children and forcing them to adjust their responsibilities to each other.”
A central theme from the research was how paying for college is not just a financial matter for parents, but actually one of “moral obligation”.
“The financial sacrifices required are both compelled and expected. They are what responsible parents should do for their children.”
A big, almost insurmountable obstacle to the American dream for most families today is student loan debt. Today, more than 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, amounting to more than US$1.5 trillion. In states like Virginia, US$38 billion is owed by more than one million borrowers. The average loan debt seen nationwide is estimated to be US$37,000, but there are more than two million student loan borrowers whose debt totals US$100,000 or more.
Student loan debt is a defining feature of contemporary higher education in America; a hot topic in politicians’ campaign manifestos and a frequent talking point in the White House. This manifests itself in huge macroeconomic plans like free college, mass debt-cancellation plans or automatic loan forgiveness for disabled veterans.
But in Zaloom’s book, it’s the private struggle in middle class homes around the nation that takes centre stage. This is what the academic describes as a “perpetual conflict” between what parents feel they should do and what they can really afford financially.
“Again and again, the families I interviewed spoke of how hard it was to follow the steps that the federal government, financial industry players and financial experts advise, such as starting to save for college when the children are young.”
Families are forced into three “moral traps” in following such advice. The first begins when their child is young – families are torn between spending on present family wants and needs or saving for college. Few can afford the latter at this point.
Then, when it’s time to apply to college, both children and parent are set on finding the “right” fit. “Right” does not equal the most affordable; instead, research found that parents and students look for a school that can “help build a social network, generate life and career opportunities and allow young adults to discover who they are”. Parents then do whatever they can to meet the cost of attending the “right” school.
The third moral trap is that these parents are betting that their child’s degree will place them in the future middle class. With crises, job loss, breakups and health emergencies, this bet often doesn’t pay off. Wages have barely budged in decades, despite increases in the cost of college tuition. The result is that many families are finding themselves burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. It’s a disappointing end to a long journey these families started in pre-school.
When asked in The Atlantic what single reform would make this process less damaging, Zaloom replied that it’s “essential” for society to make public universities free or low cost.
“That would do wonders for helping families understand that education is for them, and for opening up the imaginations of young people who don’t otherwise see college as a possibility.
“That is important in and of itself, but it’s also important because free tuition would take the pressure off families to reorganize their lives around trying to achieve this unmanageable financial goal, which is what we ask them to do now. And then ultimately, it would also benefit young adults, because they would be graduating without the kind of debt that would inhibit them from trying to figure out what kind of contribution they want to make to the world and what kind of job they want to have.”