When getting a degree is seen as a moral obligation, families will spend whatever it takes.
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 feeling of obligation is hardly illusory. Decades ago, when organized labor was strong and manufacturing jobs were plentiful, a four-year college degree was not needed to achieve or maintain a middle-class life. But now college is virtually essential, not only because the degree serves as a job credential, but also because the experience gives young adults the knowledge and social skills they need to participate in middle-class communities.
The result for middle-class families is a perpetual conflict between moral duty and financial reality. Again and again, the families I interviewed spoke of how hard it was to follow the steps that the federal government, financial industry players and financial experts advise, such as starting to save for college when the children are young. Indeed, I found that when experts instruct parents to economize, they force families into three common moral traps.
First, when their children are young, the parents face an impossible trade-off between spending on their present family needs and wants and saving for college. Few parents choose saving over spending on child development. Less than 5 percent of Americans have college savings accounts, and those who do are far wealthier than average.
For those with middle-class jobs, saving enough for college would mean compromising on the sort of activities — music education, travel, sports teams, tutoring — that enrich their children’s lives, keep them in step with their peers, deliver critical lessons in self-discipline and teach social skills. The paradox is that enrolling children in the programs that prepare them for college and middle-class life means draining the bank accounts that would otherwise fund higher education.
The second moral trap occurs when children begin applying for college. As nearly every family told me, the parents and the children place enormous value on finding the “right” college. This is far more than finding an affordable place to study; it is about finding the environment that best promises to help build a social network, generate life and career opportunities and allow young adults to discover who they are. With so much at stake, parents and children prioritize the “right” school — and then find ways to meet the cost, no matter what it takes.
An inescapable conclusion from my research is that the high cost of college is forcing middle-class familiesto engage in what I call “social speculation.” This is the third moral trap: Parents must wager money today that their children’s education will secure them a place in the middle class tomorrow.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this bet will pay off — for the parents or the children. And too often, I found, it doesn’t. Some parents’ saving plans were waylaid by crises — health emergencies, job losses, family breakups — that were common enough but impossible to foresee. Likewise, many children failed to land well-paying jobs out of college, forcing them to bear the weight of paying off debt during the most vulnerable decade of their adult lives.
Paying the high cost of college also means jeopardizing the long-term financial security of the parents. The more parents spend on their children’s education, the less they have in their retirement accounts. Here we find another paradox: Parents make huge investments in education so that their children can maintain or achieve middle-class status, but in the process, they increase the risk of falling out of the middle class themselves.
One popular tip financial advisers give parents is to spend on college the way they’re supposed to act in an airplane that loses cabin pressure: first secure their own oxygen masks (by saving for retirement) and only then assist their children (by spending for college). In reality, though, parents act just as they would on the airplane. They take care of their children first.
It’s no wonder, then, that family finances are so shaky throughout the country. The median American household has only about $12,000 in savings.
It’s also no wonder that as so many of my interviews ended, parents joked about their financial predicament by saying they might win the lottery. They have come to see outlandish luck as their best chance of dealing with their predicament. And in the absence of real changes to the current system of paying for college, what other hope do they have?
Such speculative, wishful thinkingmay seem irrational. But until we reform how a college education is financed, that is how countless middle-class families are holding on to the American dream.
Caitlin Zaloom (@caitlinzaloom) is an associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and the author of the forthcoming book “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost,” from which this essay is adapted. This blog was published by the New York Times.