How student debt shapes family life

Caitlin Zaloom considers how we can prevent escalating fees from tying students to their parents well into adulthood

September 12, 2019
Dad and daughter in tandem skydive
Source: Getty/iStock montage

This is the time of year when millions of parents across the US and the UK are chauffeuring their children to residential colleges and universities. In many ways, this annual ritual has become definitional of what it means to be middle class. Yet one central paradox goes largely unexplored by families and faculty alike.

Virtually all middle-class parents see helping their children through university as a way of enabling them to become independent adults. I found plenty of evidence for this in the 160 interviews I carried out for my new book, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost (Princeton University Press). But I also found something much more disturbing: college in the US and the UK has become so expensive that it imperils the very freedoms that higher education is supposed to enable. As a result, the soaring costs of college are shaping our most intimate family bonds.

By the time I finished my research, I understood that much of college life is organised around an open secret. On the one hand, today’s middle-class students enrol in our institutions because they (rightly) believe we can help them to become successful and independent. Yet getting their degrees requires becoming ever more dependent – on parents, on lenders, on colleges themselves. It is time we looked far more closely at the implications for higher education.

Broke students

As is well known, middle-class families will dig deep into their pockets to support their children’s education. Take the Bakers (I use pseudonyms to protect privacy), a Florida family with two children in college. Donna and Russell, a paralegal and a career military professional, knew that college costs would stretch their finances. To meet their obligations, the family refinanced their mortgage. They cut down on their cell phone expenses. They tried to use less electricity in their home.

Even with all these efforts, the Bakers will be living with the consequences over decades. Most significantly, paying the costs of their kids’ education has pushed saving for retirement to the back burner. Donna reported that they were counting on Russell’s army pension, but that wouldn’t cover them completely and they hadn’t put much away. She was clear that she wanted to be “getting on track” for retirement, but only after she and her husband had helped her children pay for college. “I just feel like my job is to be a parent first,” she told me, “and that’s what we’ve been.”

In my interviews, parents consistently declared their commitment to providing their children with the means to make themselves into the people they want to be. Living on a college campus away from home holds a singular place in this ethic of opportunity, because it gives young, middle-class adults a place to test the social and intellectual freedoms they claim as a political inheritance. Some of this education happens around the seminar table, but much of it happens on campus, where students are free of parental surveillance and control.

Yet such short-term autonomy and freedom has, in recent years, brought with it significant long-term costs. My interviews revealed how the soaring cost of college education now binds students and parents together longer than ever. Instead of cleanly launching young people into adulthood, college demands what I call “enmeshed autonomy”, with financial pressure pulling everyone down. Because any financial assistance is linked to family wealth, income and spending, the sums that parents and students are required to pay strap their incomes and drain their savings. Most families have no choice but to finance education through loans, and that debt shapes the lives of parents and children long after graduation day.

The flexibility of emerging adulthood today collides with the strictures of debt. Study after study has shown that graduates with loans get married and establish families later than those who don’t. Student debt can extend dependence on their birth family, too. Expressing a common sentiment among the parents in my study, Donna Baker said of her son: “Of course we’ll help him pay his loans.”

Some forms of dependence are obvious, as when children return home after graduation or after they have initially launched out on their own. This pattern is so prevalent that sociologist Katherine Newman has given it a name: “the accordion family”. In fact, more young adults in the US today now live at home with their parents than in any other living situation. In the UK, more young adults are living with their parents than ever before. Yet even young adults who appear independent often continue to rely on their families. The price of living away from home in one of the urban centres where they might find that elusive good job means that they often still have to take money from mum and dad. In the 1980s, the majority of young adults in their twenties were fully financially independent. Today, more than half routinely receive money from their parents.

That families understand the vice only makes the situation crueller. Parents and students expressed a keen awareness of debt’s burdens, and they carefully considered how the costs of college would affect their family. Take Clarice, a private university student who grew up near Buffalo, New York, with her mum, Linda, a social worker. Clarice distinguished herself in high school and desperately wanted to attend a university that would allow her to “suck up the world’s cultures”, as her mother described her ambition. Paying $36,000 (£29,700) a year (the price after her financial aid) would allow her to enrol at the university she felt would best enable her to dive into the language, history and culture of eastern Europe and, ultimately, reach her dream of building a life as a translator.

For Linda, giving Clarice the chance to make that real was the reason to pursue a university education. Together, they decided she should go. The debt that both Clarice and her mother carried at her graduation – nearly $100,000 between the two of them – now binds them together, pulling Clarice back towards her family just as she was winging her way out.

It was not always this way. The parents of today’s college students do not remember that their education stressed them or their own parents in ways they face with their children.

From the 1980s forward, families have confronted escalating costs in all the things that gave them security and made them middle class. Yet because middle-class life has always been about the opportunities families can open up for their children, the skyrocketing cost of college hits home with a particularly piercing pain. Even with the deck stacked against them, parents today still fiercely believe that their most important job is to raise independent children. More and more, however, children pursuing this autonomy must rely, deeply and protractedly, on the family.

Mother and daughter on tandem bicycle

Here it is worth comparing what happens in other countries. Among affluent democracies, the US is unusual in the extent to which it ties students and their parents. Consider Sweden. Contrary to what one might expect of the famously generous welfare state, Swedish students take on unusually high levels of debt for living costs, even though state universities charge no tuition fees. What’s different is that there is no parental obligation to pay. Instead, the state considers students to be fully autonomous adults. Young people advance into adulthood carrying personal debt, independent of their birth families. Parents may help them with other expenses, but they don’t have to sacrifice their own retirement and financial security to get them through university.

Australians also make significant contributions to their children’s higher education, but they begin with fundamentally different assumptions from US parents. The college financing system is designed to be favourable to students, which relieves pressure on the family. The cost of tuition is far lower than it is in the US, and lower than in the UK, too. Australian parents contribute only about a third of what American parents pay. As in other income-contingent loan systems, such as the UK’s, the repayment rate for the loans that students take on varies according to postgraduate income, alleviating any worry that a public service pay cheque or a bout of unemployment will sink them. It’s hardly perfect, but the system does not demand that families organise their lives around the problem of paying for college. That’s a situation that middle-class American parents and students can only dream about.

Of course, the contours of the American student debt problem are broadly familiar, but most of us who work in universities have failed to understand how deeply it has affected the young people we teach. We’ve also shied away from thinking about the deeper implications for higher education. I’ve worked on college campuses for more than two decades, and although I study student finance, I’ve rarely heard faculty or administrators openly discuss how the stress of paying for college shapes the learning environment. It affects what students feel they can study and what work they believe they should take. It also renders education – the engine of independence – into a problem at the heart of the family that students live inside even while they reside in university dorm rooms and for long afterwards, too.

College administrators are accustomed to the demands of accounting and economics, but they also need to start thinking like anthropologists and to grapple with how the current situation challenges the values and shapes the practices of the families they serve. University leaders should know that middle-class families value education and their children’s futures so much that they will sacrifice their own security and tie themselves in knots to help them get to the right school. This means that keeping the cost of college reasonable is a moral responsibility; we should not take advantage of their deep commitments by continually raising the price and letting families bear the burden of finance.

That is for the longer term, but as a new academic year begins with budgets already set, what can be done now? What if college administrators and faculty committed to generating more public conversations – on campus and off – about the causes and consequences of student debt and the soaring cost of higher education? What if, before the next round of big spending, we openly debated the costs and benefits of investing in more high-end amenities, new athletic facilities and larger administrative staffs? What if we spent more time listening to the voices of students and parents who are making enormous sacrifices to get seats in our classrooms? What if we drew on our collective wisdom to assess emerging policy proposals for the student debt crisis, if we all decided to be more civically engaged?

Let’s spend the year engaging each other in the urgent challenge of understanding what we can do to make universities more accessible and less taxing on families. We have so much to learn.

Caitlin Zaloom is associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost will shortly be published by Princeton University Press.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Pay together, stay together

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Reader's comments (5)

It’s worth mentioning here that the vast majority of Australian students live at home with their parents and that the English system of leaving home is a ‘trend’ that can quite easily be reversed. Its origins are when Oxbridge wouldn’t allow people from the parish to study in its associated uni.
A big factor will be house prices - and the high rents that push tenants ever further from the deposit they need to even start on the housing ladder. Look at the starting salaries, even for graduates, and then visit the estate agents - then do the maths. The most unust thing is that a house whose asking price is now 400k and was 150k 20 years ago has NOT seen a 267% rise in its construction costs (if only builders etc. wages had gone up that fast??) so what has risen is the residual land value, the value of the land you build that house on. So high house prices benefit large landowners like the Duke of Westminister. And we have a 'broken' housing market in that those who bought at current high prices a few years ago now cannot afford to sell for less, even tho' it takes ages to find a buyer at that price. Odd, really, because lower prices would benefit even existing homeowners (they could trade up the ladder for less each rung). Still, it's really really nice to know that the high rent or mortgage costs you pay as a recent graduate are ultimately enriching the UK's large landowning aristorcarcy. Well done, grads, and very very patriotic of you.
It's surely also worth mentioning the large number of students who receive minimal or no family support and are then left to pay off a large student debt throughout their adult life at the expense of buying homes, having families or saving for their own retirements. The full impact of this is only going to be fully realised in years to come when the first generations to have big student debts become pensioners themselves.
How to avoid / reduce University debts: 1 Don't go to Uni. 2 Do an Apprenticeship Degree funded by Government / employer 3 Do another type of Apprenticeship. 4 Live at home while studying or 5 Do a home swap with a similar student from another City
Do your Degree at a Swedish or Australian University?

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