College Debt as Cultural System

by Ilana Gershon, Indiana University

Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost, by Caitlin Zaloom (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019)

To understand American families’ experiences with complicated financial decisions, Caitlin Zaloom turns to student debt, or more specifically the trouble that many families in the United States face when paying for children’s college. In the past few decades, paying for college has increasingly become the central focus of most families’ financial lives. Would-be parents buy houses in good school districts, often slightly too-expensive houses, so their children have a better change at getting into a good college. When the child is born, they open special savings accounts (529 accounts) with money that won’t be taxed if it is spent on education. As children grow up, families are constantly choosing whether to spend money on after-school activities that will make children more appealing applicants, or save money for college, or save for retirement. Meanwhile, as the cost of college soars and the cost of creating a college-worthy applicant multiplies, wages stagnate. Going into debt to pay for college is often the only way that U.S. families can afford to pay for this necessary entry point into a middle-class life. As a result, both parents and children are paying down student debt, often long after the child has graduated. This financial trap is all too familiar, but what Zaloom shows in this very teachable book is how the burden of college costs is shaped by contradictory cultural imperatives and moral narratives, which in turn have formed distinctively US policies and been embedded in financial technologies.

Zaloom brings anthropological insights to a familiar set of conundrums for American families by pointing out that many of the practices that her readers will take for granted are in fact built on cultural assumptions that could be otherwise. The most foundational assumption, of course, is that people can function as investments, that one can pour money into a person to enhance their skills, an investment which will then be repaid with undetermined but significant return. In practice this means that to be successful, one needs a college degree. But there are many more assumptions involved – after all, other countries also support college education yet without forcing families to face the conundrums that US families struggle with.

College-saving and college-debt involve two fundamental assumptions that become contradictory when put into practice – the importance of financial restraint and the imperative to raise autonomous and independent children. These, then, are expressed in various financial mechanisms for managing money. Saving for a child’s college need not be seen as an essential way in which parents demonstrate how much they care for their children, yet 529 saving accounts encourage families to think so. Parents need not be torn constantly between saving for retirement or paying for college, yet time and time again, the financial advice that circulates presumes this is a pressing dilemma every parent faces. Advice-givers will recommend that parents should choose retirement over children, yet other moral pressures insist that loving one’s child entails funding college for them. While being encouraged to see their children’s education as an investment, parents are also under great pressure not to view their children through the lens of risk typically applied to investments. They must believe in their child’s potential, although with hindsight sometimes comes critique. In addition, if they haven’t been able to save enough for college, then families are encouraged to believe that taking out loans is a financially sensible strategy, not just betting on one’s future success but making an investment with returns that ideally will be forthcoming almost immediately. After all, loans must start to be repayed within six months of graduation. In short, college debt is now perfectly acceptable; indeed, it is how grandparents, parents, and children can come together to invest in a future – “loans allow for tomorrow’s income to be useful today” (31). Throughout her discussion of these assumptions, Zaloom offers poignant examples of various families struggling to manage these cultural imperatives, in their less than ideal or very wealthy lives, as they strive to pay for college while also facing illness, job loss, and divorce.

Zaloom also explores the presumptions inherent in the financial aid forms (FAFSA) that families must fill out to get any kind of financial assistance, from governments or colleges. The forms presume that children will be filling them out, although this rarely turns out to be the case. The forms also assume that all family members will be transparent about their finances, that no family circulates financial information in complicated ways or has been torn apart by acrimony. The forms assume that “couples should share financial power and responsibilities between them, closely monitor their saving and spending, and communicate openly, even after divorce” (95). Zaloom points out that even in the seemingly happiest of families she interviewed, parents and children rarely discussed the exact details of the parents’ finances because all involved tacitly agreed to protect the children from understanding, with any sort of precision, the sacrifices parents were making – strategic ignorance at work. As Zaloom documents, the only transparency that appears to occur throughout this process is the transparency the FAFSA forms dictate. A great deal of the process is concealed at various strategic moments – how financial aid decisions are made, how much money parents actually make, how one’s friends and neighbors are dealing with similar dilemmas, and so on. Indeed, Zaloom argues that if there were not this oppressive silence, if everyone knew how difficult it is for most US families to pay for college education and how differently college is financed in other countries, there might also be political will to change how college is paid for in the United States.

She also argues that white families have a much easier time paying for college than black families – racial inequalities in the United States are most pronounced in this process. Black families make less money over a lifetime and are less likely to inherit much if anything. In her poignant stories of how families scrape together enough money to pay for four years of college, white families appear to be lucky when grandparents can chip in. Meanwhile, black families have to rely on their entire church congregations and extended family. While reading this chapter in particular, I thought assigning this book could be an effective way to get my primarily white Midwestern students to talk about racial inequality in the United States, by taking on a topic that hits close to home but which reveals differences that might surprise my students.

In fact, I kept thinking of classes in which I wanted to teach this book, non-academic friends with kids in college I wanted to give it to, and a graduate student who now will have to read it for her qualifying exams. Zaloom has written a book that offers a poignant and accessible glimpse into the burden of paying for college, and how it shapes families’ lives for far longer than the four years spent in college: determining, among other things, where people live and often what jobs they take. But the final lesson is greater: debt has turned college into a vocational school for white-collar jobs for far too many Americans in the past two decades.

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