Caitlin Zaloom: College used to be a lot cheaper for families, because there was more funding from the government. If you think about the biggest educational systems, like the University of California system or the City University of New York system, these universities were free or practically free for decades. That was in part because of a belief that higher education was essential for the national project of upward mobility, and for having an educated citizenry.
So middle-class families didn’t always have to pay for college with debt. The shift began in the 1980s, in terms of a changing political philosophy. President Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, said in 1981, “If people want to go to college bad enough, then there is opportunity and responsibility on their part to finance their way through the best way they can.” When those who argued that college is a private benefit framed it like that, it became logical to say that education should be paid for by the people that it benefits. And so in the 1990s, the vast expansion of loans for higher education began.
Pinsker: Many of the parents and children you interviewed about their college-related debt feared that they were being financially burdensome to their family members. Given the shift you just described, do you think that this represents people internalizing system-level problems as personal ones?
Zaloom: The families that I spoke with really feared the possibility that they would be a weight on each other. And that is very much a fear of failing under the terms of the current college financing system—people understand themselves as failing, but we give them unreasonable terms.
The fear is a really visceral feeling for parents. What they want is for their children to be able to go off into the world and become adults without the weight of their history—that of the parents—bringing them down. Across all of my interviews, it was so important to parents to enable their kids to move into open futures, not limited by the parents’ economic background. The idea of limiting the horizon of their children is almost inconceivable to the parents that I spoke with.
Parents understand something profound about living in a powerfully unequal society. They recognize that having a kid who can take their shots—who can really make the most of themselves—is essential to the possibility of reaching this far-off tier where people are living lives of stability and wealth. And if young adults are unable to take that shot, they face the possibility that they will be in either that constrained, eroding middle class that their parents belong to—or, worse, that they will fall, and fall far.
Pinsker: The middle-class parents in your book generally didn’t talk with their kids about the financial strain of paying for college. You note that this isn’t confined just to the subject of paying for college, but is the case with other financial matters too. Why do you think parents so often avoid conversations about money with their kids?