The College Debt Double Bind

By Andrea Penman-LomeliFebruary 22, 2020

The College Debt Double Bind

Indebted by Caitlin Zaloom

WHEN CLARICE BEGAN exploring her financial aid packages for college while in her last year of high school, her mother Linda was much more forthright about the type of wager they’d be making than many parents are today. Before deciding to take on tens of thousands of dollars in loans ($60,000 in Clarice’s name and another $36,000 under her mother and stepfather), Linda tried to convey to her the enormity of her decision. “You’re making decisions today, Clarice, that are going to affect your whole life. You might not be able to buy a home. You might not be able to own a car. You have to make decisions.” Despite the bleak reality sketched, Clarice and her mother both felt that sending Clarice to New York University would be the best decision for her future.

In NYU anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom’s new book, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost, Zaloom unravels the narratives surrounding higher education and reveals the moral force they exert on the modern middle-class family. One of 160 families interviewed by Zaloom and her team, Clarice and Linda had a unique story in that it depicted the sort of moral calculation done regularly across the country in blunt terms. A large majority of the families interviewed had been planning since their children’s births; however, few could contend with the weight of the expectation to send their child to the “best school possible” crossed with the incessant rise of tuition. Throughout her book, Zaloom shows how the narratives we tell ourselves in the United States about the value of higher education and the need to invest in an individual’s future potential falls squarely on the nuclear family (or an imagined one if the nuclear family doesn’t exist). Not only is college understood as outside of the state’s domain of responsibility in the United States, the burdens of financing education can be (and often are) extended through a number of generations, indebting many individuals beyond the student making the decision to matriculate. Families in her stories often weight whether to send their children to college against the possibility of one day paying off a mortgage. Throughout her book, Zaloom charts the force of these narratives and reveals how these myths are both critical to upholding the exploitative business of American higher education and responsible for completely debilitating families, keeping them beholden to the logic of debt for decades.

Zaloom relies on interviews with children and their families to understand the type of planning that goes into financing higher education and deconstructs the student loan industry, depicting it as a structural issue that transcends planning and financial literacy. She deftly tracks shifts in the student loan industry — from the growth of the for-profit sector of universities to changes in the Department of Education’s risky Parent PLUS lending — and explores how higher education facilitates the tethering of both parents’ and students’ financial futures to creditors, restricting their decisions to those that serve to pay off debt. (Zaloom repeatedly emphasizes that arranging these interviews wasn’t easy; people largely keep their finances private, and found it challenging to approach the subject of financing higher education even with their own children.)

In her project, Zaloom focuses on the “middle class.” She defines middle-class families as those that make too much to qualify for federal grants, yet make too little to pay for college out of pocket. Although the families she interviewed are united by their submission to the financialization of higher education, the “middle class” encompasses a wide range of economic, educational, racial, and regional backgrounds. The Nowicki parents from Michigan both have doctorates and send their two sons to state universities, while a Florida family takes advantage of the state’s 529 prepaid college tuition plan and fully pays for their children’s tuition before they begin college. In other families, the responsibility of paying for one child’s education spans as many as three generations. These families all engage in a series of precarious wagers on their children’s futures, what Zaloom defines as forms of “social speculation.”

These wagers are the result of families being stuck in a double bind. Financing higher education exerts such moral force on contemporary American families that many don’t see it as a viable option to refuse this form of debt; she defines this as education’s “moral mandate.” Many parents co-sign loans and remortgage, risking their own financial stability, in order to make educational opportunities possible. Parents often continue planning in this way despite the fact that financial advisors warn against putting their children’s education before their own saving goals. Both the acceptance and refusal of debt often produce shame and feelings that parents haven’t done enough to prepare their children. As Zaloom explains, “The high cost of college today means that middle-class parents and children must, in fact, rely on financial support from others. But the norms of middle-class culture mean that these others should be parts of the financial system: government, banks, and schools.”

If one of this country’s foundational myths is that higher education is a precondition for social mobility, many parents see investing in future generations as one of the few ways to advance. However, by unraveling the student debt complex, Zaloom demonstrates how this path exacerbates preexisting inequalities. Through expensive test prep, segregated school systems, and pricey afterschool programming, the path to college broadens the very inequalities it promises to overcome. For example, black students today carry nearly 70 percent more debt on average than their white counterparts. If the second half of the 20th century saw political movements strive toward financial inclusion, targeting “unbanking” and exclusion from lending institutions as major political issues, the last two decades have been marked by the rise of predatory lending that works in concert with racist legal structures. The logic of financial inclusion as a means to social mobility plays itself out in higher education such that families feel they must make their children’s education possible by any means, as long as it results in the realization of their children’s hard work. This, despite the fact that debt has its own metabolism. Interest rates make student loans metastasize, growing until they are no longer recognizable to the debtor.

Beyond the high price of admission, the ways universities evaluate a family’s possible contribution through the future debts of students and their parents makes financing higher education an exceptionally American experience in its contradiction; while higher education promises to enhance students’ future autonomy, its high cost makes this promised independence nearly impossible, what Zaloom calls “enmeshed independence.” Zaloom found that when students are kept abreast of their families’ finances, they often feel guilt about having their academic decisions weigh on their parents, while parents feel similarly about limiting their children’s future prospects. In many of the collected stories, financing college trumped all other considerations and often students were unaware of the risks their parents were making in their name. As Zaloom explains: “In my conversations with families, middle-class parents often discussed the importance of having faith in positive outcomes for their children in college and expressing that faith to them. Parents are not simply engaging in wishful thinking; their expressions of faith are well advised.” Despite the fact that colleges are constantly reinventing ways to squeeze money out of students, families largely believe that the price of higher education is an investment that will yield returns.

Zaloom outlines several examples in which the desire for students’ proposed autonomy comes at the expense of planning for the collective. One of Zaloom’s interviewees, Patricia from Florida, felt that saving for her children’s college educations was an obligatory first priority. Using the state’s 529 system, she paid for college at a price locked in over a decade before the kids began college. However, when the father walked out on the family, leaving them with over $400,000 in debt, they were unable to access the funds that she had saved. Her son ended up not using the funds when he decided not to finish school, and she was left scrambling and regretting having planned for her son’s future instead of the family as a whole. Planning for college privileges the individual (and their future earning power) over all other considerations, including a safety net in the present.

Zaloom began conducting these interviews shortly after the 2008 crisis, when private banks started withdrawing from offering student loans — an important shift in the history of American indebtedness. In 2010, President Obama attempted to fill this hole by federalizing student loans. By 2018, the US government was the largest consumer lender in the country, but that didn’t make student loans any safer: over a quarter of student creditors default to this day. Student debt is currently the second largest category of consumer debt (second to mortgages); the amount of student debt Americans owe is now approaching two trillion dollars. Consumer debt has grown into a primary vehicle for capital accumulation, extracting profits from students whose labor power might not otherwise be particularly useful to capital. This form of extraction garnered attention as a particularly nefarious form of exploitation during the Occupy protests, in which organizers targeted student loans through Jubilee and Strike Debt. Organized protests of this kind, which continue into the present day, mark turning points in consumer debt being taken seriously as a political issue, and show how people are beginning to understand debt as a structural issue and an increasingly important mode of accumulation.

However, student debt is not just a form of accumulation, it also shapes and molds the modern citizen, which Zaloom only touches on. Since the Enlightenment, education has been understood as responsible for shaping a citizen and their duties to society. If the path to higher education ensures a future of debt for a majority of students, it creates citizens that understand their primary responsibility as one to finance capitalism. Unlike other forms of exploitation, debt atomizes the individual; as a personal choice and an investment in the self, debt makes the citizen’s primary responsibility to pay off the debt through their own professional cultivation. The shame that accompanies debt makes families dependent on extractive lending institutions which also isolate their experience, making it difficult to connect their condition of indebtedness to that of others.

By nature, these debts are relationships between a person and a financial institution that are illegible to all others. This relationship quells and represses individuals both on and off campuses, making mass political action harder to conceive of and limiting people’s ability to understand their material conditions as interconnected. Anyone who has attended a four-year university while contributing to financing their education knows that the prospect of debt disables political possibilities, suffocating students and conceptually eclipsing social action on multiple scales. Why spend precious time engaged in any social movement or action when this precious time could be spent working to pay tuition or, perhaps more morally taxing, making your family’s investment worth their economic sacrifice?

Compare the debtor’s condition to that of the worker: whereas workers can exercise collective power by withholding labor and disrupting production, debtors are unable to withhold payments in a systematic way without further incapacitating themselves in the long-term; the long-term gains that the striker wins through short term losses don’t exist for the debtor because the debtor’s debts, due to interest, only increase over time. Despite the fact that debtor-creditor relationships are arguably more central to the organization of power in contemporary America than that of laborers and capitalists, there are few tangible sites at the grassroots level for directly contesting debt’s hold on society.

The debtor’s relationship to the future is thus a series of frustrating compromises. As Maurizio Lazzarato writes in The Making of the Indebted Man, “The debt economy is an economy that requires a subject capable of accounting for himself as a future subject, a subject capable of promising and keeping a promise, a subject that works on the self.” The student-debt complex systematically molds the student into a subject beholden to finance capitalism. The university’s task is no longer to create submissive workers; rather, it is an avenue for extracting profit from surplus labor through financialization and making the student’s future one of existing on borrowed time. Zaloom points to this future orientation when she explains Kimberly’s story: instead of pursuing the activism to which she’s dedicated her college career, she’s forced to take on a job that helps outsource labor overseas in order to pay off her college debts.

As Zaloom demonstrates, the inflation of university costs is merely one iteration of the privatization of institutions responsible for social reproduction, like hospitals, schools, and natural resources which make mere survival in contemporary America a series of muted struggles. Insofar as higher education shapes the contemporary American citizen, it creates indebted individuals who are tethered to finance capitalism upon graduation. The combined weight of crippling student debt is undoubtedly a crisis, but we must understand it as failure by design. It is not merely a series of broken systems that aren’t functioning to support students’ academic and professional goals. Instead, the financialization of higher education operates explicitly within the logic of debt, both as a mode of accumulating capital and as a way of shaping the ideal subject. The myths that surround college, which hail it as priceless investment, a moral duty that trumps all others, only serve to prop up this system. If we understand all these institutions as responsible for reproducing society ideologically as well as biologically, the privatization of these institutions only serves to further mold the modern subject as an individualist who expects nothing from the state in the way of social services and is submissive to financial institutions that make claims on their futures.


Andrea Penman-Lomeli is a doctoral candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

LARB Contributor

Andrea Penman-Lomeli is a doctoral candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.


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