During my anthropological fieldwork in Wisconsin in 2017, I encountered what some of my interlocutors called a “forced timeline”. It denotes a specific route in life that many young Americans feel pressured to comply with: “it’s like you go to school, you take on some debt, you know, you find a good job and you pay it off”. I wondered why so many of the people I met expressed criticism towards this idea while at the same adhering to it.
I later realised that one answer could be the aspiration for a good life, which for many entails upwards social mobility or the opportunity to get a secure and well-paying job. Due to credential inflation, jobs that used to only require a high school degree now require a college degree; and attending a high-ranking university may increase one’s chances to do well in a highly competitive job market (Ho 2009). However, college degrees and especially those from high-ranking universities are costly.
Since the 1970s and 1980s, many universities have seen state funding slowly diminish. In the state of Wisconsin, for example, state spending on education is now the same today as it was in 1966 (Goldrick-Rab 2016). For most Americans, higher education is now the second largest expenditure in their life, only surpassed by homeownership (Hacker and Dreifus 2011). A generation or two ago, students had the possibility to finance their education by working throughout the summer. As my oldest interlocutor told me at a private college, when she was reflecting on all the changes that had happened to the educational landscape: “It’s extraordinary. Nobody can do what we did”. So, what does this mean for Americans and their ability to pay for their education?
It has been and continues to be the norm to take out loans in order to finance one’s education; in fact, students are more likely than ever to work part-time and take out loans at the same time (Goldrick-Rab 2016). Essentially, loans allow students to borrow money from a future in which they are financially better off, and as one woman from Illinois told me: “What is a few loans if it guarantees time and resources to study? (…) Instead of (…) losing my whole future?”
The choice to take out student loans seems to be a no-brainer when entering university, but upon graduation, many are hit by a grim realisation. For example, one of my interlocutors broke down in tears when she explained that her loan burden meant that she would not be able to give her unborn child the same kind of financial support as her parents did for her. For this reason, she needed to quit her current job and was searching for higher-paying jobs.
Her story is not exceptional; 45 million Americans currently owe a total of 1.6 trillion USD in student loan debt. For many, that debt structures their life according to the logic of repaying one’s loan, which means that debtors have to constantly think about their financial choices so as to continuously meet every single payment deadline (Lazzarato 2011, 2015). First of all, many debtors simply have to accept any job opportunity that presents itself (and turn down unpaid internships), even if it is completely unrelated to one’s education. Secondly, they may have to move back home to their parents to save money and postpone buying a house, which has a negative effect on the U.S. national economy (Cooper 2017). There is virtually no possibility to declare bankruptcy because of student loan debt, and the debt carries a racial and gendered dimension as it disproportionately affects women and people of colour (Houle and Addo 2018). For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has said about her own situation: “(…) it was literally easier for me to become the youngest woman in American history elected to Congress than it is to pay off my student loan debt”.
While some scholars and politicians argue that student loan debt is “manageable” and “not a lot over a lifetime” (Akers and Chingos 2016), the lived experiences of American debtors reveal a more nuanced picture. Whether through anthropology or other disciplines, attending to people’s everyday life and vocalising what is taken for granted remains a contribution of utmost importance to the debate about the double-edged sword that is student loan debt.
- Akers, Beth, and Matthew M. Chingos. Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt. Princeton University Press, 2016.
- Cooper, Melinda. Family Values: between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism. Zone Books, 2017.
- Goldrick-Rab, Sara. Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. UNIV OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2016.
- Hacker, Andrew, and Claudia Dreifus. Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – and What We Can Do about It. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011.
- Hess, Abigail J. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: To Pay off Student Loans ‘I Had to Do Something That Was Nearly Impossible’.” CNBC, CNBC, 25 June 2019, http://www.cnbc.com/2019/06/25/aoc-it-was-easier-to-get-elected-than-to-pay-off-my-student-loans.html.
- Ho, Karen Zouwen. Liquidated: an Ethnography of Wall Street. Duke University Press, 2009.
- Houle, Jason N., and Fenaba R. Addo. “Racial Disparities in Student Debt and the Reproduction of the Fragile Black Middle Class.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2018.
- Lazzarato, Maurizio. Governing by Debt . (Semiotext(e)), MIT Press, USA, 2015.
- Lazzarato, Maurizio. The Making of the Indebted Man: an Essay on the Neoliberal Condition. (Semiotext(e)), 2011. MIT Press, USA
About the Author:
Mathias Sosnowski Krabbe works as a Research Assistant at the University of Southern Denmark. He has fieldwork experience from Hiroshima, Japan and Wisconsin and Illinois, USA. He completed his MSc in Anthropology from Aarhus University in 2018.