The untold history of how America’s student-loan program turned the pursuit of higher education into a pathway to poverty.
It didn’t always take thirty years to pay off the cost of a bachelor’s degree. Elizabeth Tandy Shermer untangles the history that brought us here and discovers that the story of skyrocketing college debt is not merely one of good intentions gone wrong. In fact, the federal student loan program was never supposed to make college affordable.
The earliest federal proposals for college affordability sought to replace tuition with taxpayer funding of institutions. But Southern whites feared that lower costs would undermine segregation, Catholic colleges objected to state support of secular institutions, professors worried that federal dollars would come with regulations hindering academic freedom, and elite-university presidents recoiled at the idea of mass higher education. Cold War congressional fights eventually made access more important than affordability. Rather than freeing colleges from their dependence on tuition, the government created a loan instrument that made college accessible in the short term but even costlier in the long term by charging an interest penalty only to needy students. In the mid-1960s, as bankers wavered over the prospect of uncollected debt, Congress backstopped the loans, provoking runaway inflation in college tuition and resulting in immense lender profits.
Today 45 million Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in college debt, with the burdens falling disproportionately on borrowers of color, particularly women. Reformers, meanwhile, have been frustrated by colleges and lenders too rich and powerful to contain. Indentured Students makes clear that these are not unforeseen consequences. The federal student loan system is working as designed.
Valuable…Patiently reconstructs the evolution of our student lending system.
The roots of today’s student debt crisis run deep, and Indentured Students is the first work to uncover them. Works like this that successfully combine original and sophisticated scholarship, moral urgency, and political relevance rarely come along. Shermer has written a brilliant gem of a book.
We look back on the New Deal as a heyday of progressive policymaking. Shermer pulls back the veil to show how political maneuvering sowed the seeds of the student debt crisis. Moreover, she documents in exquisite detail how the racialization of student debt was not an accident, it was inevitable. Empirically rich and clearly written, Indentured Students not only unearths the foundations of a national emergency crippling generations and stalling economic mobility but also provides lessons for the fight against it.
Crafting an effective new approach to financing higher education requires grappling with the past. Policymakers, scholars, and anyone who has experienced the burden of paying for college and paying off loans will benefit from this important book.
Indentured Students is a superb history of the financing of higher education for students in the United States who are not rich and privileged. Shermer details the politics, policies, values, motivations, and compromises from the New Deal forward concerning college affordability. This book is essential for understanding the history of higher education and today’s student debt crisis.
This impressive, important book unravels the roots of the student debt crisis. Shermer traces the federal government’s involvement in higher education financing from its halting nineteenth-century origins right up to the present. No one has offered so comprehensive and wide-ranging an account of the tangled development of federal policy, financial practices, and higher education in the United States.
With vivid clarity, Shermer shows how unsustainable the debt-driven financing of US higher education financing has become. Illuminating how bad policy saddled millions with crushing debts, she helps us envision liberation from the savage inequalities of the system on which higher education now depends. Indentured Students is essential reading for anyone concerned about the intertwined futures of education and democracy.
[Has] important contributions to make on the present debate about what to do with existing student loan debt, while even leaving room for more discussion of what should be done to help students on higher education institutions moving forward…Shermer’s book is a sustained indictment of the entire edifice.
This well-researched history provides crucial context for understanding a thorny social problem.
- 400 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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