Tuition Has Increased 8X Faster Than Household Income: How Student Debt Is Transforming U.S. Families

Written by Ann Brown

Tutition. Who can afford it. Student loan debt is out of control, say most experts. The cost of education is even more out of control, according to most studies. And this is significantly affecting America’s middle class.

Author Caitlin Zaloom, an anthropologist and associate professor at New York University,writes about how student loan debt has affected the way middle-class parents raise their children in her new book, “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost” for which she interviewed dozens of families taking out student loans. The middle-class families make too much to qualify for Pell Grants (which are for households that earn below $50,000) but not enough to pay for tuition outright. 

“She defines those families as middle class because they make too much to qualify for federal aid — but too little to pay the full cost of a degree at most colleges. For many, the burden of student debt raises big questions about what a degree is for,” NPR reported. Any households with an annual income from $40,000 to $250,000 are viewed as middle class.

Zaloom presents her case using Personal stories of families trying to support their children in college and how they handle the heavy debt.

And the debt continues to grow. 

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“From the late nineteen-eighties to the present, college tuition has increased at a rate four times that of inflation, and eight times that of household income. It has been estimated that 45 million people in the United States hold educational debt totalling roughly $1.5 trillion—more than what Americans owe on their credit cards or auto loans. Some fear that the student-debt “bubble” will be the next to burst. Wide-scale student-debt forgiveness no longer seems radical,” The New Yorker reported. 

Young adults are more dependent on their parents than ever before. 

“In the eighties, more than half of American twentysomethings were financially independent. In the past decade, nearly 70 percent of young adults in their twenties have received money from their parents. The risk is collective, and the consequences are shared across generations,” The New Yorker reported.

There are some saving programs that parents can participate in, such as 529 but according to Zaloom’s findings only 3 percent of Americans invest in a 529 account or the equivalent. Still saving for college isn’t the issues, found Zaloom. The problem is the sharp increase in college prices. 

“In truth, it’s the other way around,” she writes. “Planning requires stability in a family’s fortunes, a stability in both family life and their finances that is uncommon for middle-class families today.”

There is also a difference when it comes to student debt and race. Zaloom told NPR: “It does not affect everyone the same way at all. And too often we focus on big aggregate numbers that lump everybody together. The $1.5 trillion of outstanding debt, the average of $30,000 for undergraduate borrowers…Those numbers put everyone together in the same group. But of course and predictably, women and people of color bear the burden more than their white, male peers. They graduate with more debt. Takes them longer to pay it off. They’re more likely to go into default. All of the downsides of debt are visited on the people who can bear it the least.