Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Thank you very much for contributing to our June Membership Drive! If you didn't have a chance to donate, please do so at any time. We look forward to your support!

What The Strain Of Paying For College Does To Families

A man browses through books at the Cecil H. Green on the Stanford University Campus December 17, 2004 in Stanford, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A man browses through books at the Cecil H. Green on the Stanford University Campus December 17, 2004 in Stanford, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

We unpack the financial and psychological toll of paying for soaring college costs with the author of the new book “Indebted.”


Caitlin Zaloom, associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. Author of “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost.” (@caitlinzaloom)

Stanley Gates II, legislative analyst for the Columbus, Ohio, City Council. (@blu_buckeye)

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Indebted” by Caitlin Zaloom

New York Times: “Opinion: How Paying for College Is Changing Middle-Class Life” — “Everyone knows that higher education is expensive. The average annual price tag for attending a private, four-year American college is now around $50,000. To pay that, most students receive some combination of financial aid and loans, but schools expect parents to reach into their bank accounts, too.

“Paying for college, however, is taking a toll on American families in ways that are more profound and less appreciated than even the financial cost conveys. It has fundamentally changed the experience of being middle class in this country.

“Although middle-class families have long labored to help their children get educated, only recently has the struggle to pay for it — which can threaten the solvency of the family and cast children in the role of risky ‘investments’ — transformed the character of family life. It is altering relationships between parents and children and forcing them to adjust their responsibilities to each other.

“As an anthropologist and professor at New York University, one of the world’s most expensive institutions of higher education, I’d long suspected that the cost of college — which has tripled at public colleges and universities in the past three decades — was affecting my students and their parents in more than just budgetary terms. But I wasn’t sure. Americans typically avoid discussions of personal finance, and parents frequently decline to discuss family finances with their children — until, too often, they have no choice.

“So I embarked on a research project to better understand middle-class families who are taking on debt to pay for higher education. Over the past seven years, my research team and I conducted 160 in-depth interviews across the country, first with college students and then with their parents. I considered families to be middle class if the parents made too much money or had too much wealth for their children to qualify for major federal higher education grants, and if they earned too little or possessed insufficient wealth to pay full fare at most colleges.

“As is customary with this kind of research, I offered the interviewees anonymity so that they would be more likely to participate and to be open and honest. Even still, gaining access was an arduous process.

“Perhaps the central theme that emerged from this research was that for middle-class parents, the requirement to help pay for college is seen not merely as a budgetary challenge, but also as a moral obligation. The financial sacrifices required are both compelled and expected. They are what responsible parents should do for their children.

“Indeed, shouldering the weight of paying for college is sometimes seen by parents as part of their children’s moral education. By draining their savings to pay for college, parents affirm their commitment to education as a value, proving — to themselves and to others — that higher education is integral to the kind of family they are.”

The Atlantic: “Why College Became So Expensive” — “The story of the rising cost of college in America is often told through numbers, with references to runaway tuition prices and the ever-growing pile of outstanding student debt.

“The personal toll these trends have taken is hard to convey, but the anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom does so in her new book, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost, which documents how the price of a college education has forced many middle-class families to rearrange their priorities, finances, and lives.

“In Indebted, Zaloom, a professor at New York University, draws on some 160 interviews she did with families who are taking on debt to pay for college, mixing in history of education policy and analysis of the financial morass students and their loved ones must navigate—including a close reading of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form and the concept of family it promotes.”

Inside Higher Ed: “How Families Navigate the Growing Cost of College” — “The cost of college and student debt have emerged as major political issues in recent years as both younger voters and parents of students grapple with how to pay for higher education. But while progressive politicians have pushed for free college or big debt-cancellation plans, most families struggle in private to figure out how to finance a college degree, writes Caitlin Zaloom, an associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University.

“For her new book, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost (Princeton University Press), she conducted more than 160 interviews with parents and students who made the decision to take out student loans. Zaloom finds that middle class families’ lives are increasingly shaped by the problem of paying for college. And they face a conflict between financial discipline and fulfilling the potential of their children.”

Hilary McQuilkin produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit