On Friday, August 30, 2019, IPK Senior Fellow Caitlin Zaloom pens an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “How Paying for College Is Changing Middle-Class Life.” Read an excerpt below and the full article here.
Everyone knows that higher education is expensive. The average annual price tag for attending an 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.