How Families Navigate the Growing Cost of College

A New York University anthropologist argues in a new book that the middle class is increasingly defined by dilemmas over how to pay for college costs.

September 4, 2019
 

The cost of college and student debt have emerged as major political issues in recent years as both younger voters and parents of students grapple with how to pay for higher education. But while progressive politicians have pushed for free college or big debt-cancellation plans, most families struggle in private to figure out how to finance a college degree, writes Caitlin Zaloom, an associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University.

For her new book, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost (Princeton University Press), she conducted more than 160 interviews with parents and students who made the decision to take out student loans. Zaloom finds that middle class families' lives are increasingly shaped by the problem of paying for college. And they face a conflict between financial discipline and fulfilling the potential of their children.

Zaloom answered questions in an email exchange about the arguments offered in Indebted.

Q: You write in Indebted that paying for college has come to redefine the terms of being middle class in the U.S. What’s driven that change? And why did you want to focus on the middle class in particular in this book?

A: The middle class in the U.S. has always been defined by the ability to open up opportunities for children. Today, more than ever before, that means dreaming about, planning around and, ultimately, paying for children to enroll in college. A degree is now the most important way that young adults and their families can gain access to economic security, family stability and also independence, the ability to live as they intend. Those freedoms lie at the heart of the American promise to the middle class. When we look at it that way, it is no wonder that parents and students alike dig deep and go into debt to pay whatever it takes.

Indebted focuses on middle-class Americans because college subjects them to a distinctive set of pressures. They have no choice but to use debt and investment in the attempt to achieve their aspirations. Listening to their experiences reveals what college means today; it also exposes what it is like to live inside the financial economy.

Q: Many higher ed experts have described the Free Application for Federal Student Aid as a barrier to low-income students. You say it actually reinforces a middle-class ethos. How so?

A: Being middle class depends upon a feeling of autonomy, even when those families need to rely on financial assistance to achieve their most closely held goals, like sending children to college. The FAFSA is designed to maintain families’ privacy, a critical dimension of the middle-class illusion of independence. We can see this if we look at how families are supposed to fill out the FAFSA. First, the application for aid is designed to be used in private. It requires that parents and children expose their most sensitive details, like their income, wealth and job history, to federal scrutiny. But the FAFSA allows them to do this from the security of their own homes, online -- presumably on the family computer. I call this the “hidden touch” of middle-class assistance -- it is designed not to seem like assistance at all. In fact, it confirms the government’s trust in those families and affirms the status of middle-class citizens and their goals, like sending a child to college.

The FAFSA also reinforces the nuclear family, a model which has its origins in middle-class ideals. The FAFSA collects information on two parents and the children who depend on them financially. In doing this, it delivers instructions about who should be counted as family and who doesn’t belong. Families may pay for grandparents’ health care, or contribute to a cousin’s education, or support a close friend between jobs. Few families, today, actually live their lives in a neat, nuclear pattern, and those families that do are much more likely to be wealthy. Because the kind of aid they receive and how much depends on what they report within that restrictive model, the FAFSA punishes those who don’t fit neatly into its definition, both low income and middle class.

Q: Despite the detailed income information they share with the federal government, you say middle-class parents rarely have frank discussions about the financial sacrifices to pay for college. What does that lack of openness -- or even shame attached to debt -- mean for how students understand the costs of higher ed?

A: Many students do not have a strong grasp on what their education will cost them, either in financial terms or in how it might restrict their lives and those in their families. Student loans are likely their first experience with significant debt and the demands of repayment are far off; loans that students take on as they matriculate will not be due for another four and a half years. For an 18-year-old, that is a quarter of their lifetime.

Parents also conceal their own financial situations from their children. Even though the FAFSA requests that students collect their parents’ financial information to complete the application, many parents actually fill out the forms for them, so students do not understand what is happening at home. Families also rarely have detailed discussions about how the cost of college will have an impact on the family finances -- the drain on parents' retirement accounts, how much debt parents will have, what they will need to do to pay their required share or what it might mean for how long they might have to work. Parents are silent about all these issues because they want young people to be free to pursue their interests and develop their talents without bearing the burden of their own compromised histories or mistakes.

Q: You argue that the middle class is actually much more fluid than generally understood. What’s not being conveyed in studies or news coverage focused on family income?

A: The experience of being middle class today means striving for goals that are accessible only through debt. Take home ownership. From midcentury, the middle class has been defined through the stability and growing economic security afforded by rising home values. Gaining access to this benefit required taking on a mortgage. Today, college education has joined home ownership as a critical middle-class achievement, and one that requires loans.

This is why I place debt at the center of my definition. To be middle class means to be in the position of making too much to be eligible for government higher education grants but not having enough to pay cash for college. Instead, the middle class has to rely on finance -- saving and investment (if they can) and loans to make their most important goals. Income composes only a sliver of those families’ experiences.

Q: How has the student aid system made attaining middle-class goals especially risky for African American families?

A: College costs African Americans more, both financially and personally. The colleges and universities dedicated to serving them are also strapped. Historically black colleges and universities have long graduated young adults who go on to careers as teachers, social workers, lawyers and doctors, and in far greater numbers than majority-white institutions do. HBCUs achieve this despite much smaller endowments and lower public support. That their graduates are loyal shouldn’t be a surprise, but neither should the challenges they face in gaining a college education.

As a result of the long history of discrimination, African Americans are likely to have jobs that pay lower salaries and to possess far less wealth than their white peers. That means that when it comes time to pay their required college contributions, families have to stretch their finances much farther to make it work. This squeeze means that African American families are more likely than others to need credit to send their children to school and to pay with Parent PLUS loans, the riskiest among the federal choices. When they graduate, African American young adults leave school with debts heavier than white peers, loads they will carry during the most vulnerable years of their adult lives. Students should be able to count on their education to give them more freedom, not to drag them down.

Q: No matter how much information they received about the possible downsides of student debt, the families you spoke with put the highest value on a college that would fulfill their children’s potential. Why hasn’t advice about choosing the most affordable college been more compelling to those families?

A: In many families, parents understood that they faced two conflicting obligations. They felt a responsibility to be frugal and consider the financial impact of college and, at the same time, they believed that they should do everything in their power to support their children’s futures. In many families I spoke with, one or both parents initially argued that their child should choose a school by putting cost first. But in almost every case like this, the family ultimately decided to select based on what they considered to be the best school, or at least the best fit. Economic considerations came second.

Why did this happen? Because the families I spoke with were very clear that the young adult’s potential came first. That meant deciding on a college, together, where young adults could discover their interests and nurture their abilities. The college years are a unique time, where students begin to take charge of who they want to be and how they will get there. That makes the college environment crucial. It shapes the choices they will have and the people they will meet. Once families found that best fit, they then did everything they could to make it work financially.

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