The struggle to pay for college is one of the defining features of middle-class life in America today. At kitchen tables all across the country, parents agonize over whether to burden their children with loans or to sacrifice their own financial security by taking out a second mortgage or draining their retirement savings. Indebted takes readers into the homes of middle-class families throughout the nation to reveal the hidden consequences of student debt and the ways that financing college has transformed family life.
Caitlin Zaloom gained the confidence of numerous parents and their college-age children, who talked candidly with her about stressful and intensely personal financial matters that are usually kept private. In this remarkable book, Zaloom describes the profound moral conflicts for parents as they try to honor what they see as their highest parental duty—providing their children with opportunity—and shows how parents and students alike are forced to take on enormous debts and gamble on an investment that might not pay off. What emerges is a troubling portrait of an American middle class fettered by the “student finance complex”—the bewildering labyrinth of government-sponsored institutions, profit-seeking firms, and university offices that collect information on household earnings and assets, assess family needs, and decide who is eligible for aid and who is not.
Superbly written and unflinchingly honest, Indebted breaks through the culture of silence surrounding the student debt crisis, revealing the unspoken costs of sending our kids to college.
Awards and Recognition
- A Forbes' Pick for The Year's Best Books About Higher Education, 2019
"A great new book . . . . It has come to be the case that . . . . literally the definition of being middle class is sending your kid to college when you can't afford to . . . . Think about the psychic toll that this fundamental paradox is taking on the nation, the effects it has, both on folks who don't go to college, who are missing the cut-off of the middle class, folks who are in the middle class, and then, as the college scandal shows, all the way to the very top. It's insanity cascading up and down the system. That's the status quo we have. And that's exactly what Caitlin Zaloom explains so well."—Chris Hayes, Why Is This Happening podcast
"Indebted ends up being a story about modern families—about how we understand our responsibilities toward one another in a time of diminishing prospects. There’s a distinctly modern paradox in Zaloom’s version of middle-class life, with parents preparing their children for adulthood while also protecting them from it. [Indebted] takes much of what we have come to accept and renders it alien and a bit absurd . . . . At times, Indebted reads like an ethnography of a dwindling way of life, an elegy for families who still abide by the fantasy that thrift and hard work will be enough to secure the American Dream."—Hua Hsu, The New Yorker
"A compelling new book."—Gillian Tett, Financial Times
"The story of the rising cost of college in America is often told through numbers, with references to runaway tuition sticker prices and the ever-growing pile of outstanding student debt. The personal toll these trends have taken is hard to convey, but the anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom does so in her new book Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost, which documents how the price of a college education has forced many middle-class families to rearrange their priorities, finances, and lives."—Joe Pinsker, The Atlantic
"Paying for college is a total nightmare for anyone who is not a total bazillionaire, but it’s really hard to talk about that, because it’s a sensitive subject . . . . All these families really get into the nitty gritty of what they went through. Zaloom got them to really open up . . . . It’s a very eye-opening book. It’s super interesting. So my recommendation . . . check out Indebted by Caitlin Zaloom."—Dan Kois, Slate
"Zaloom’s book has become a sensation because so many people instinctively know that something is deeply out of whack in the way we pay for university education."—Sasha Abramsky, The Nation
"Important new book . . . . Zaloom demonstrates that the moral logic of financing college is unique to the United States."—Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein, The Baffler
"Zaloom’s comprehensive exposé of the college-financing industry argues that middle-class Americans are in an unresolvable bind: culturally mandated to ensure 'open futures' for their children, but unable to afford to do so without help, they become ensnared in risky, speculative debt. . . . The facts described here will be familiar to anyone who’s heard of the student-debt crisis; the analysis, with its emphasis on the moral dilemma facing middle-class families, will resonate with parents confronting it."—Publishers Weekly
"Zaloom provides a clear-sighted and timely analysis."—Library Journal
"An excellent introduction to the student finance complex for students, parents, and present and future policy makers."—Choice
"Zaloom has produced a book that is accessible to those without a prior understanding of economics . . . . [Indebted] is a timely book and may be of interest to all parents and students preparing for entry to HE."—Chloe Reid, LSE
"College affordability is one of the most urgent problems affecting opportunity in this country, and the consequences of excessive student debt are both deep and widespread. Indebted, which is based on groundbreaking research on the financial lives of middle-class families, provides an intimate view of how the struggle to pay for college has transformed the American experience. It's required reading for everyone concerned about the costs of higher education—students, parents, and policymakers alike."—Arne Duncan, managing partner at Emerson Collective, former US Secretary of Education, and author of How Schools Work
"Combining sharp analytical insight with vivid interviews, Indebted transforms our understanding of college finances. Behind the cold statistics on mounting student debt, Zaloom discovers middle-class families' deeply moral ledgers, revealing how notions of good parenting pivot on providing children with a college education regardless of expense. A must-read for specialists and general readers alike."—Viviana A. Zelizer, Princeton University, author of Economic Lives: How Culture Shapes the Economy
"This timely book brings the best of humanistic social science into conversation with the critical study of the American economy. Tying the very definition of middle-class status to a largely privatized world of loans, debts, and finance, Zaloom grounds her book in beautiful human portraits of the struggles and anxieties of the speculative economy of financialized higher education in the United States."—Arjun Appadurai, author of Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance