In an unusual study on student debt, New York University anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom interviewed more than 160 people—students and parents—and got them to open up their financial books and talk about the toll of paying for college.
The result is an often riveting book called “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost.”
For this week’s podcast, we talked with Zaloom about what surprised her most from her research, what she thinks should be done and how she has changed her thinking about saving for college for her own young children.
And because the best parts of Zaloom’s book are the voices of the students she spoke with, we wanted to bring a student perspective to this episode as well. So we talked with a recent NYU graduate who took on six-figure debt for college and asked him what it feels like to select a college—and now start a career—under such financial stress.
Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: You mentioned that it's harder to get people to talk about their finances than it is to talk about sex or religion. Was it that difficult to find families for your study?
Caitlin Zaloom: It was really, really hard to get people to talk about the challenges of their household finances, and people feel really deeply troubled about it. And I think that more often than not, people have a defensive reaction because they oftentimes can feel like failures about their finances, particularly when they're carrying a lot of debt, including student debt.
There's a sense [in the middle class] that we should all be financially independent, we should all be making it work both for ourselves as parents and for our children who might be emerging, young adults enrolling in college. So when a professor and her team come around asking about that, I think it can feel quite threatening to that sense of really being a middle-class person because you have to roll out, in any of my interviews with people, all of the details about how we can make this incredibly complicated thing work. And the truth of matter is that we all rely on help. We rely on help from government sources, from families and from each other beyond that, too, just to do what we're supposed to do in the most basic moments of being middle class.
"Giving children that opportunity requires oftentimes putting money toward college or university that parents themselves might otherwise put toward their own retirement."
Caitlin Zaloom, NYU anthropology professor
Your book ends up starting with numbers but quickly moving to discussions of morality. It seems like you're suggesting that parents feel a moral obligation to be able to pay whatever it costs for whatever school their student got into.
Absolutely. The parents are facing a very powerful moral conflict that the high cost of college places them in. On the one hand they feel exactly what you just described, that they should be paying whatever it takes for their kids to get the best education they can possibly manage. And of course they do. That makes every kind of sense. Parenting, in the United States, for generations and generations, has been organized around trying to open up that opportunity.
What kinds of trade-offs are parents making to pay for college?
Parents feel the trap most acutely around what they see as their children's potential. They want to give their children experiences in college that will allow them to develop their skills and to prepare themselves to live in a way that they choose. That's what American independence is supposed to be, to be able to live the life that you choose. That is a moral commitment, that is a political commitment and it is an essential emotional commitment. On the other hand, giving children that opportunity requires oftentimes putting money toward college or university that parents themselves might otherwise put toward their own retirement, their own futures.
So part of the trap is that we set young adults' futures against their parents’. And it shouldn't surprise us that parents choose to support their emerging young adults rather than put their money away for themselves. We shouldn't be putting them in that situation in the first place.
Are we looking at a point where, in whatever number of years, this is going to play out where people are really struggling to pay for retirement or to stay in their middle-class lifestyles because they've made these choices, but we just haven't gotten there yet?
Yeah. I think that there's going to be a serious moment of reckoning around this. Experts across the field, economists and others have flagged this retirement crisis that we're seeing now, but which the repercussions of are really going to emerge in years to come, and not very far in the future. But the fundamental issue for me is that we tend to talk about the crisis of college costs and the crisis of retirement in different conversations. We need to be talking about that in the same conversation because we are forcing parents to choose between their children's futures and their own. There is one pot of money for families and they have to decide what to do with it. And parents are choosing to put it towards supporting their young adults.
So let's talk about answers. What do you think are some of the things that should happen in your view to shore up the system or to correct this?
I think that the key thing is that we have to fund our public higher education systems more robustly. And by more robustly, I mean even just bringing them back to the levels that they were in 2001. I mean, even in places like California, which have had some of the most well-recognized universities in the country, those numbers have also gone down and down and down.
Today, UCLA, one of the top research universities in the world, gets 7 percent of its funding from the state of California. That means that it is a public university only because of the commitment of the educators and the administrators of UCLA, not because the funding from the state of California is so robust. So we really need to support our public colleges and universities to do what they do best, which is to educate the rising young adults of their states. It's essential.
And it would also have the benefit of reducing some of the pressure on families, not only the financial pressure, but also the moral pressure. Because today there is a sense that sending children to an expensive private college is going to give them a better education. That's been a clear message that an expensive thing is a better thing for decades now.
And we need to bring up the idea that public education is not only a perfectly fine option, but actually a really great one. And the truth of the matter is that it can be, and it has been. So, it is simply returning to the commitment that we've had in the United States and that we should be valuing for our future.
I understand you have a couple of young kids. From your research, what do you think you've learned that you might even act on as a parent yourself now that you've seen these looked into these finances?
Well, one thing that I have seen now over and over is that it takes multiple generations, grandparents, parents and young adults, to make it work together. I mean, if the grandparents' generation has resources, they are also helping send the kids to college. And that is true in my family, and I feel very lucky and privileged to have that. But I guess I thought that that was an unusual arrangement.
And now that I've talked to so many Americans about how they're trying to make it work and patch it together, I now know that it is a full family effort to get young adults to and through college today. And that is really useful because it is also crazy. It shouldn't be that way. And it wasn't that way for either the grandparents or even for my generation.
EdSurge also wanted to hear directly from a student about these issues. So we connected with a recent NYU grad who was one of Zaloom’s research assistants on the project. His name is Daniel Cueto, and though he wasn’t interviewed for the book, he says his own story fits right in.
Cueto says he wanted to aim high, which to him meant going away to a highly selective, private East Coast college, and so he ended up at NYU. He loved the education he got, but he and his family took on six-figure debt to do it.
EdSurge: Have you ever had a moment where you said to yourself, “This was not worth it? Why did I do this choice instead of a choice that wouldn't have saddled me with so much debt?”
Daniel Cueto: Oh absolutely. In undergrad, every summer I would come home and I would have this, it was a recurring, it was almost like an anxiety attack that would happen over a couple of days. This deep questioning like, what did I do to myself? Coming back to my family, you know it's so easy to kind of be away in college, but when you come back to your family and seeing what the kind of material sacrifices they're making for your own success, it's really humbling but at the same time it completely sent me down these ruts of self-doubt and really deep questioning of is this worth it? Should I drop out and transfer? I asked myself a lot, should I take time off, go to the community college, work on the side to provide?
But for my parents, their response to that was like, "No, you're in it. You need to finish." And to their credit and with their support I did and here I am.
People have this idea that the academic work is the hard part of college. You're describing a whole different emotional world of making it through that is not about whether you're good at the book stuff.
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I worked from freshman year up until graduation. I worked from doing research with Dr. Zaloom, to walking dogs, to working in the university call center. I got really creative, but through that, I got this job as a resident assistant and there were so many other students like me in the exact same position.