In her new book Indebted, New York University professor Caitlin Zaloom takes a look at how the pressure of rising college costs has transformed life for middle-class families.
The economic anthropologist joined Reset to discuss her findings and more.
On the steep increase in the cost of higher education
Caitlin Zaloom: In public higher education, states have cut their budgets for their colleges and universities across decades now. The investment in higher education is extremely low. … When colleges and universities don't have the funding that they need, they have to raise tuition in order to find the funds to move their operations forward, to deliver the education their students deserve. So that is one major reason why costs have gone up.
Another reason is that the upper-level administrations of colleges and universities have expanded greatly. There are just many more highly paid administrators at colleges and universities across the board. That means that their salaries have to be supported by the funds that come in the door, and that means tuition raises.
On middle-class families and college debt
Zaloom: Being middle-class has always meant opening up opportunities for children, and today, more than ever before, that means picking up the expenses to send children to college.
Those families make too much money to qualify for major federal grants, yet they cannot simply write a check for the full tuition, room and board that their kids will require to go to college. That means that all of the families in my book Indebted are going through something I call the student finance complex. They are trying to save, possibly to invest, taking on debt and reaching for other forms of loans and financing to make college work.
On racial inequalities when it comes to paying for college
Zaloom: When we require families and students to take on that burden, it reproduces the inequalities that already exist. So the issue of race becomes absolutely central when thinking about how this loan system impacts our families and students. Especially, African American families simply come into the system without the same kinds of intergenerational wealth that white families can count on. Of course, not all white families, but white families for generations were the beneficiaries of things like expanded home values and even education when it was free and very low cost. But because African American families can't count on having the benefit of those wealth-building programs, … [they] face a lag in what they can pay. So when we asked them to pay the same amount or in the ballpark of the same amount as white families, it's a much bigger burden.
On the connection between higher education and ideas about success
Zaloom: College education remains such a core value for families. ... There were very, very few parents that I spoke with who didn't want their child to be able to find their skills, to reach their potential and to do that specifically through years in college. ... When we talk about higher education as a policy problem, we tend to think of it as an issue around income, you know, people pay money now so they can get a higher income later. But for parents and students alike, what I heard was that they wanted education, of course, for economic stability, but for more than that — for aspiring to become the kinds of people those young Americans envisioned for themselves.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.