What student debt is doing to a generation of Americans
I inherited nothing but because I was a good saver and invested from early on, I was able to pay for all my son's education fees without difficulty. He entered the workforce with zero debt.
But had I been poorer I would have advised him to learn deeply whatever he was interested in and get a diploma mill degree for documentation purposes. If you know a field well and can demonstrate it, employers will have little interest in your documentation.
He spent 8 years learning stuff that he enjoyed but which was no practical use to him but then took a short course in IT.
He entered the workforce in IT and he just had to show his work for lots of people to want to hire him. They hired him on the basis of what he could do rather than any qualifications. And you can learn programming, which is the basis of IT, in a week. I did. Demonstrated ability and usefulness will get you jobs. Qualifications often will not.
In my working life I several times got jobs that weren't even advertised.
So I greatly deplore the poor guidance that most American college students receive. Most could do well without incurring any debt
In April, 2011, the anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom was sitting in her office at New York University when one of her most promising students appeared at her door, crying. Kimberly had dreamed of life in New York City since she was eight years old. Growing up in a middle-class family just outside Philadelphia, she was regaled with stories about her mother’s short, glamorous-sounding stint waitressing in Times Square. Kimberly’s version of the big-city fantasy was also shaped by reruns of “Felicity,” a late-nineties drama set at a lightly fictionalized version of N.Y.U.
Her dream school did not disappoint. Kimberly was an intrepid, committed student, studying the effects of globalization on urban space; she worked with street vendors and saw their struggles to make ends meet. College opened up a new world to her. But her family had sacrificed to help finance her education, and she had taken out considerable loans. She had looked forward to putting her degree to good use, while chipping away at the debt behind it. But the job she was offered involved outsourcing labor to foreign contractors— exacerbating the inequalities she hoped a future career might help rectify.
Zaloom felt that there was something representative about Kimberly’s story, as more students find themselves struggling with the consequences of college debt. She wanted to learn about the trajectory that had brought Kimberly to her office that day. She visited her at home and listened as her mother, June, talked about how she, too, had fantasized about a life in New York.
But June’s family had needed her back home, in Pennsylvania, where she met Kimberly’s father. They eventually divorced, but they stayed in the same town, raising Kimberly together. June had wanted her daughter to have the experiences she had missed out on. When Kimberly was accepted at N.Y.U., her father urged her to attend a more affordable school in state. June implored him to change his mind, and he eventually agreed. The decision stretched their finances, but June told her daughter, “You’ve got to go.”
It’s easy to dismiss quandaries like Kimberly’s as the stuff of youth, when every question seems freighted with filmic significance. There’s a luxury to putting off practical concerns. But her story gave Zaloom insight into the evolving role of college debt in contemporary American life.
Kimberly’s predicament was put in motion when she first set her sights on attending a college where, today, the annual tuition is more than fifty thousand dollars, in one of the most expensive cities in the world. That her parents risked their financial stability to nurture this dream seemed meaningful. Previous generations might have pushed a college-bound child to fend for herself; Kimberly’s parents prized notions of “potential” and “promise.” Shielding her from the consequences of debt was an expression of love, and of their own forward-looking class identity.
Since 2012, Zaloom has spent a lot of time with families like Kimberly’s. They all fall into America’s middle class—an amorphous category, defined more by sensibility or aspirational identity than by a strict income threshold. (Households with an annual income of anywhere from forty thousand dollars to a quarter of a million dollars view themselves as middle class.)
In “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost” (Princeton), Zaloom considers how the challenge of paying for college has become one of the organizing forces of middle-class family life. She and her team conducted interviews with a hundred and sixty families across the country, all of whom make too much to qualify for Pell Grants (reserved for households that earn below fifty thousand dollars) but too little to pay for tuition outright.
These families are committed to providing their children with an “open future,” in which passions can be pursued. They have done all the things you’re supposed to, like investing and saving, and not racking up too much debt. Some parents are almost neurotically responsible, passing down a sense of penny-pinching thrift as though it were an heirloom; others prize idealism, encouraging their children to follow their dreams.
What actually unites them, from a military family in Florida to a dual-Ph.D. household in Michigan, is that the children are part of a generation where debt— the financial and psychological state of being indebted—will shadow them for much of their adult lives.
A great deal has changed since Kimberly’s parents attended college. From the late nineteen-eighties to the present, college tuition has increased at a rate four times that of inflation, and eight times that of household income. It has been estimated that forty-five million people in the United States hold educational debt totalling roughly $1.5 trillion—more than what Americans owe on their credit cards and auto loans combined.
Some fear that the student-debt “bubble” will be the next to burst. Wide-scale student-debt forgiveness no longer seems radical. Meanwhile, skeptics question the very purpose of college and its degree system. Maybe what pundits dismiss as the impulsive rage of young college students is actually an expression of powerlessness, as they anticipate a future defined by indebtedness.
Middle-class families might not seem like the most sympathetic characters when we’re discussing the college-finance conundrum. Poor students, working-class students, and students of color face more pronounced disadvantages, from the difficulty of navigating financial-aid applications and loan packages to the lack of a safety net.
But part of Zaloom’s fascination with middle-class families is the larger cultural assumption that they ought to be able to afford higher education. A study conducted in the late nineteen-eighties by Elizabeth Warren, Teresa Sullivan, and Jay Westbrook illuminated the precarity of middle-class life. They found that the Americans filing for bankruptcy rarely lacked education or spent recklessly. Rather, they were often college-educated couples who were unable to recover from random crises along the way, like emergency medical bills.
These days, paying for college poses another potential for crisis. The families in “Indebted” are thoughtful and restrained, like the generically respectable characters conjured during a Presidential debate. Zaloom follows them as they contemplate savings plans, apply for financial aid, and then strategize about how to cover the difference.
Parents and children alike talk about how educational debt hangs over their futures, impinging on both daily choices and long-term ambitions. In the eighties, more than half of American twenty-somethings were financially independent. In the past decade, nearly seventy per cent of young adults in their twenties have received money from their parents. The risk is collective, and the consequences are shared across generations. At times, “Indebted” reads like an ethnography of a dwindling way of life, an elegy for families who still abide by the fantasy that thrift and hard work will be enough to secure the American Dream.
If you are a so-called responsible parent, you might begin stashing away money for college as soon as your child is born. You may want to take advantage of a 529 education-savings plan, a government-administered investment tool that provides tax relief to people who set money aside for a child’s educational expenses. Some states even provide a 529 option to prepay college tuition at today’s rates.
Zaloom writes of Patricia, a schoolteacher in Florida who managed to cover in-state fees for both of her children after five years of working and saving. Patricia resented the fact that preparing for her children’s future left her with so little time and energy to be with them in the present. Her daughter, Maya, was academically gifted and excelled in college. Then, when Patricia’s son, Zachary, was a high-school senior, her husband walked out on the family, leaving them four hundred thousand dollars in debt.
Patricia spent her retirement savings to keep them afloat. Zachary had difficulty coping, and he had never shown a strong inclination toward college, but the money was already earmarked. Zaloom writes, “Her investment in his tuition was an expression of faith in him.” He struggled in college and never graduated. “If I’d had a crystal ball,” Patricia says, “I wouldn’t have gotten in the program for Zachary.”
In Zaloom’s view, Patricia’s decisions all point to a core faith that college is fundamental to middle-class identity. Throughout “Indebted,” parents and children lament the feeling of burdening one another. Parents fear that their financial decisions might limit their children’s potential, even when those children are still in diapers. It’s a fear, Zaloom argues, that loan companies often exploit. “You couldn’t not hear about it,” Patricia recalled of the commercials for Florida’s college-savings account. The existence of 529 plans suggests that paying for college is just a matter of saving a bit of each monthly paycheck.
And yet Patricia is an outlier. Only three per cent of Americans invest in a 529 account or the equivalent, and they have family assets that are, on average, twenty-five times those of the median household. Zaloom disputes the premise that “planning leads to financial stability.” Student debt didn’t become a problem because families refused to save. “In truth, it’s the other way around,” she writes. “Planning requires stability in a family’s fortunes, a stability in both family life and their finances that is uncommon for middle-class families today.”
As an anthropologist, Zaloom is particularly attuned to how institutions teach us to see ourselves. The Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) form, required of all students seeking assistance, consists of a hundred or so questions detailing the financial history of the applicant’s family. Zaloom hears about the difficulty of collecting this information, especially when parents are estranged, or unwilling to help. And the form presumes a lot about how the “family unit” works. One informational graphic poses the question “Who’s my parent when I fill out the FAFSA?”