Oh So Many Costs

The value of a college education. The value proposition. The importance of getting that degree. The college experience.

All of us who work in higher education, at one level or another, buy into the value of what a good college education can to do improve a student’s life. We see the benefits regularly, from the curiosity and enthusiasm of the engaged student to the transformative “thank you” that pops up in an email or note years later. Is there a more reliable way to invest in young people? To make clear our commitment to future generations?

And yet we so often miss the massive costs, explicit and hidden, of a traditional college education. By “traditional,” I mean students graduating high school and attending a college or university full-time, living away from their parents. The model makes up about 20% of all who are enrolled in higher education. It is, however, the backbone of the American higher educational system (or market), and the perhaps what the public mostly considers when asked about about higher education.

Traditional college has been changing for students and their families, often in ways that we who work across higher education do not or cannot fully appreciate. Many in academia are on the wrong side of the exchange, so to speak, rendering a complete appreciation of our students and their families – particularly from a financial perspective – all the more important. In fact, it is essential. Government disinvestment in higher education began in the 1980s, with significant upticks in the loan market to pay for it all in the 1990s. That trend has continued. Public and private higher education has been affected. Today, as faith in the value of higher education has eroded, it is not difficult to find many causes. Paying for college today is a private burden with public consequences.

Towards that end, I strongly encourage spending time with Caitlin Zaloom’s 2019 book, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost. It is an unflinching account, easily accessible and yet difficult to digest, of the tremendous burdens assumed by middle class families in America who have high academic hopes and aspirations for their college-attending children. It is highlights the gaping discrepancies between the aims of policies, the rhetoric of higher education, and the difficulties shouldered by those who seek a high-quality education.

Zaloom is an educational anthropologist at New York University, where the sticker price of an undergraduate education can be mighty difficult to ascertain. There are scholarships, loans, and lots of programs that provide breaks for some students and keep costs high for others. This is how higher education functions today. It is usually quite difficult to know exactly how much it will cost. What we can be certain of, though, is that for most students, studying at NYU as an undergraduate is an expensive education. Tuition, room and board, books and fees, all in for this coming year is estimated to be about $80,000. A four-year education, anticipating rising costs, will run close to $350,000.

How do families deal with the hopes for their children, their commitment to their kids, and that kind of expense? Family net worth in the US is a good way to see the just how out of whack things are. Average family net work is slightly under $750,000 and median net worth, a more reliable indicator as a few families have so very, very much, is just over $120,000. Average household college debt is almost $60,000.

NYU is one of the nation’s most popular undergraduate institutions. Great faculty, super facilities, outstanding programs in the heart of one of the world’s most important cities. Fifty years ago, NYU was a competitively priced higher education option for many of varied means. In that regard, it was similar to so many other institutions of higher education. Today it is an elite institution. Disinvestment has many consequences, including pressure for institutions to maximize effectiveness in the market – a particular sort of profit.

Into that complicated maelstrom of expectations and reality, Zaloom closely tracks the decision-making of several families – all of whom handled the stresses of selecting and paying for college relatively privately. In the preface to the updated version, which came out after the pandemic, she notes that many more families are having open discussions about cost and value. While the anchoring of a college education to an individual and family remains high, the ever changing landscape has meant that how families approach the matter continues to shift. Forty years ago most middle class students could obtain a college degree without crippling debt. As that percentage shifted and debt levels increased, new strategies are in play. Parents work multiple jobs. Students work while attending college. Support for an education is spread among family members. Students redirect choice and options because of costs. Remember, though, that in higher education perceived value is often calibrated is terms of reputation.

At the center of Indebted are the intimate stories of students and families drawn from 160 interviews. The choices are consistently difficult, fraught with concerns about love, support and identity. Pressures to borrow to pay for a child’s education, for the student to borrow as well, are extreme. The theme of the book is that “the problem of paying for college today involves such profound moral, emotional and economic commitments that it has, in fact, redefined the experience of being middle class.” That extraordinary claim stands up through the book, especially when listening to the subjects. Most middle class parents will do whatever it takes to help their children. Our current systems of funding take advantage of that commitment, exacerbating obligations and causing great grief. It makes for powerful moral mandates that middle class families and students live on a daily basis.

From another perspective, it also can be very profitable. Overall student debt is at $1.75 trillion.

The primary methodology of Zaloom’s book is an ethnography of family finance. She does more, though, explaining how those of lesser means experience the process as well as the impact of race. There’s very good analysis on the recurring emphasis of planning. “Start a 529 plan” is a recurring motif, but how many middle class families can set aside hundreds of thousands of dollars to save? Ironically, 529 plans are fantastic for the wealthy to park money and avoid taxes.

The complexities of modern life haunt the educational plans examined in Indebted. Health concerns, job changes, divorces and other factors work against no-debt college. The assumptions baked into financial aid processes further underscore the distance between policy and everyday life. While some critics may bemoan the dependence of coddled college students, economic stressors clearly are at play. The families supporting college students, like most college students themselves, skimp, save and find ways, nonetheless, to finance their kids.

Parent PLUS loans receive extra attention. Supposedly designed to help students when a gap remains between what a student and family can pay and estimated “cost of attendance,” Parent PLUS loans are assumed by the parents at higher rates than for loans to students. Payments start immediately and the loan is complicated, comes with fees, and can be exceedingly burdensome. As Zaloom reminds us, however, it is quite difficult for a parent to say “no” to a child and the loan that could finance their educational dreams. It is precisely this sort of moral mandate that harms families and builds anger and resentment with higher education.

Zaloom closes the book with a call towards greater public investment in higher education. Other countries do it, just as some nations have found success with income-contingent payment strategies for student debt. How that might happen, however, lies outside the scope of this book. Indebted was published before the culture wars and partisan focus on higher education took hold. It is difficult to imagine a scenario that might re-frame the debate. Before getting to that point, however, knowing current circumstances is essential. Towards that end, Zaloom’s Indebted provides a much-needed service, highlighting a much more complete understanding of the personal costs of higher education.

David Potash

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