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"Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost" -- Book Review

Updated: Jan 13, 2021

In "Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost," author Caitlin Zaloom pulls back the curtain on the world of college financing. Zaloom delivers an eye-opening look at the policies and procedures in place for families who are considering how to pay for college.

Zaloom's central argument is that the challenge of college financing has reshaped the middle class experience in the United States. The middle class, as Zaloom defines for the purposes of her book, are those families who are too wealthy to receive major financial aid for college tuition yet not wealthy enough to pay for the full college fare. Parents in this class have the culturally engrained belief that an investment in college is a moral obligation to provide for their children.

As a result, Zaloom argues, these families organize their entire lives around how to pay for college. They start saving early in their children's lives, then sign for loans to pay for college, and finally continue to pay for college loans well after the child has graduated.

Zaloom cites the rising cost of college as a major challenge for these families. In addition to this obvious point, Zaloom points out many other obstacles that middle class families encounter when deciding how to pay for college. For example, most middle class families don't typically talk about finance openly. Also, Zaloom details how the U.S. government has shifted the burden of college financing from grants to loans over the last several decades allowing the banking sector to leverage great influence on families. She then identifies how financial instruments like 529 plans favor a small segment of the middle class: those who are financially savvy. And she points out that financial aid models are not accounting for more modern familial structures.

Zaloom ultimately balances anecdotal stories of several middle class families around the country with facts from her own research and other historical data. She presents ironies, inefficiencies and downright inequalities in the U.S. model and calls for a new way to approach college financing. Zaloom offers the Australian model, which calculates student loan payments based on income earned after college, as one way to lessen the burden of college debt.

This book is not a playbook for families trying to figure out how to pay for college. It is not a ranking of the best 529 plans or a strategic guidebook to getting financial aid. So if you are looking for a book on on how to pay for college, this is not your book.

However, this is a book for you if you want to understand the "Student Finance Complex," which Zaloom defines as policies linking families to universities, government programs and financial institutions. Or if you want to understand "Enmeshed Authority," which Zaloom explains as the paradox parents face in both engendering independence for children while also providing ongoing financial assistance even after college to pay student debt, then this is your book.

In all, "Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost" is informative, illuminating and enlightening. Personally, I hope the players involved in the "Student Finance Complex," like the universities, banks and government institutions, take a long look at Zaloom's findings. The system is creating great stress on many families.

And we see this at CROSSWALK. Some families hire us to prepare their children for the SAT and ACT because they know that improved test performance can be a way to access merit-based financial aid. While this strategy is proven, it can create undue stress on some families.

While reading this book, it is hard to not be cynical. Does the United States really care about educating our middle class? As Zaloom asks, do we value higher education for the opportunity it can provide? Or is it just about the money?

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