Indebted to their future
As students increasingly incur high amounts of debt for their undergraduate education, there is heightened concern about the long-term implications of loans on borrowers, especially borrowers from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Drawing upon the concepts of cultural capital and habitus (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977) and the human capital framework (Becker, 1993), this research explores how student debt and social class intersect and affect individuals' trajectory into adulthood. A total of 50 interviews were conducted with young adults who had incurred $30,000 to $180,000 in undergraduate debt and who were from varying social classes. The findings explore how four categories of students -Insiders, Entrepreneurs, Pioneers, and New Moneys- varied along dimensions of economic and cultural wealth, and experienced their college search, college education, and transition to the workforce differently. The findings point to the immense role that habitus (Bourdieu, 1986) plays in shaping borrowers' educational experiences and post-graduation outcomes: Individuals' embodied cultural capital shaped their educational experiences and interactions with institutions and the labor market. Those who had high levels of cultural resources tended to have a more rigorous college search, stronger academic orientation, and greater student involvement during college. Compared to other students, they were more likely to transition to high-paying, high-status professional positions after graduation and attend graduate school. In contrast, individuals with low cultural resources tended to have a more casual college search, were more prone to encountering errors with their financial aid, spent a great deal of time working during college, and later faced underemployment in the labor market. They were less likely to report benefiting from a social network and their credential in the labor market and more likely to express regret about their debt and college education. The findings illustrate the inequitable payoff that college and debt have for borrowers with varying levels of cultural resources, and suggest that loans can serve as a form of social reproduction. A conceptual model outlines the factors associated with incurring high levels of debt and illustrates how they relate to borrowers' college experiences and lives post-graduation. In highlighting how debt exacerbates social inequities and the risks it can pose to students, especially students with low income and cultural resources, the findings call for higher education institutions to conduct a comprehensive review of their practices and services from the time students apply to college to after they graduate. Enhanced supports at high schools and community organizations can also assist families, particularly in encouraging participation in early savings plans and strengthening their financial literacy. Additionally, increased governmental scrutiny of borrowing can help protect students from over-indebtedness.