3 ‘moral traps’ faced by middle-class families struggling to afford college

Paying for college has “fundamentally changed the experience of being middle class in this country,” writes Caitlin Zaloom, an anthropologist and professor at New York University, in The New York Times. “It is altering relationships between parents and children and forcing them to adjust their responsibilities to each other.”

For her new book, Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost, Zaloom conducted 160 in-depth interviews with middle-class college students and their parents. She defined middle-class families as those who made too much money to qualify for federal higher education grants but too little to pay the full cost at most colleges. The study found that, for middle-class parents, paying for college is now seen as a moral obligation. “The financial sacrifices required are both compelled and expected. They are what responsible parents should do for their children,” she writes.

That tension, between middle-class parents’ financial reality and their sense of duty, is forcing them into what Zaloom calls “moral traps.” First, parents are told to save for their children’s college expenses early. But for middle-class families, saving for the future means spending less on activities that would likely make their children more competitive applicants later, enrich their lives, and teach them social skills.

Second, when applying for college, students and their parents prioritize finding the “right” college—one that will help them build a strong social network, provide career opportunities, and assist them on their journey toward self-discovery—instead of the most affordable institution. Then they find a way to deal with the costs later.

Finally, parents are making these trade-offs betting that their children’s education will ensure their future spot in the middle class. But, Zaloom says, that isn’t guaranteed, given the many variables that affect students’ employment after graduation and their families’ well-being. Zaloom notes that by making such large investments—often rearranging their priorities and lives—for their children to stay in the middle class, parents “increase the risk of falling out of the middle class themselves.”

Altering the family dynamic

Amid these challenges, many middle-class parents and children today fear they are burdening their family members, for instance, by limiting their children’s futures or draining their parents’ savings. “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,” Zaloom told The Atlantic.

Making public universities tuition-free or low-cost, she said, not only would help “families understand that education is for them” but also “would take the pressure off families to reorganize their lives around trying to achieve this unmanageable financial goal.”

Topics in this story

Next Up

Fewer colleges allowing incoming freshmen to pick their roommates

Many incoming college students would prefer to choose their roommates, but administrators are starting to crack down on the practice, hoping to help students step outside their comfort zones.