What does it mean to be middle class in America?
You might think of financial benchmarks like owning your own house or earning enough to take an occasional vacation.
But Caitlin Zaloom, a cultural anthropologist and professor at New York University, says that most middle-class families today share one common experience: struggling to pay for college. It’s the subject of her new book, “Indebted: How Families Make College Work At Any Cost” and her recent piece in the New York Times.
Zaloom says middle-class families tend to make too much money to qualify for the federal grants reserved for low-income families — but not enough to pay for college outright.
The outcome is parents faced with a hard decision between watching their children take on large loans or risking their own financial security in order to pitch in.
She spoke with “Marketplace’s” David Brancaccio about why middle-class families are having such a hard time paying for college. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: One of the central organizing principles of being middle class is worrying about college costs?
Caitlin Zaloom: That’s right. And especially worrying about college costs because it is the most important way today that families can open up opportunities for their kids. The way that people experience themselves as middle class is by parenting — by making sure that their children can have opportunities that parents themselves didn’t have.
Brancaccio: We have three kids (who are now adults) but they were very concerned about how much we helped them with college costs. And my spouse and I would always say that this is the most important thing we could spend money on; helping you get these opportunities.
Zaloom: I think that idea is very much about what it means to be middle class. Of course, that opportunity has not been available for many, many Americans – historically or today. But I think that promise is what middle-class parents focus on.
Brancaccio: But it’s a nightmare because you also have other duties as a parent.
Zaloom: That’s right. And the focus on college starts at the moment, really, that children are born. Parents begin worrying about how they’re going to pay for this goal that is 18 years out. But of course there are many things that they have to pay for In the meantime — like daycare, or getting an apartment or buying a home in a school district that will provide a good education in the meantime.
Brancaccio: And the answer to how people pay, if they’re middle class, is in the title of your book — “indebted” — that’s the way it’s done?
Zaloom: It is through debt, but it’s also through really any means possible. So by drawing down savings, by raiding retirement funds, by taking out second mortgages, by taking on second jobs.
We all know that there is more than $1.5 trillion in outstanding student debt and more than 44 million borrowers. But I think we haven’t reckoned fully with what the effect is on our family lives, what the effect is on our relationships between parents and children who have to face down those costs.
Brancaccio: Making these sacrifices, going into debt — is there a proper return on investment if the family is able to pull this off?
Zaloom: So we know that college pays off in the long run, on average. But I think we also need to take account of the ways that debt affects people differently. For instance, women and people of color carry more debt than their white peers, and they also have more trouble in the labor market getting compensated.
Brancaccio: You’re an anthropologist and you met people who really opened up their lives to you on this question of paying for college — what was the biggest surprise to you?
Zaloom: One of the biggest surprises was just how strongly committed to college and to education all of these families were. I think that we need to support parents in that idea — historically, it’s a very critically American idea which we don’t recognize or support enough.
Brancaccio: Bigger than buying a house?
Zaloom: I think it is bigger than buying a house. In fact, I think that buying a house is part of the college endeavor actually — because people buy houses for the school that their kids might go to, not just for the roof over their heads.
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