Necessary Evil

How Student Loans Are Incorporated into Peoples Everyday Lives 




Student loan levels in the United States have risen since their inception by the Federal Government in 1958 and they continue to rise today. Economists and the general public are at odds about what this means. The public narrative, as evidenced by news coverage, op-eds, social movements, and polling data, suggests that student loans have become a “crisis” that negatively impacts the lives of young Americans. Economists, meanwhile, argue that there is no “crisis” with student loans. They argue instead that the notion of “crisis” is fueled by the fear of the growing dollar amount that student loans represent and the false narrative that many students cannot pay their student loans and/or are financially burdened by them. Perhaps more importantly, they argue that the average student loan pays for itself in higher earnings over the life course, thus making student loans a financially sensible option for borrowers and society.


Economic models that measure the cost-benefit of student loans neglect to consider the lived experience of student loans, non-monetary justifications for continued education, and the ramifications for the family in the loan process. They do not take into consideration the ways in which individuals talk about their problems with student loans. In short, they do not consider how student loans are incorporated into people’s everyday lives.


This dissertation uses an interview-based study with 60 lawyers living in the Northeastern US. I conducted life course interviews with respondents between the ages of 24 to 49 who currently hold their Juris Doctorate and work professionally as lawyers. Lawyers are an interesting occupational group since their circumstances intersect with how the public and economists talk about student loans. J.D. recipients have high loan amounts, which fit with the public narrative of high debt levels but, as economists would point out, they are “fine” because they have lower default rates than undergraduate students. They also benefit from government iii repayment and forgiveness programs. Drawing on these interviews, this dissertation traces how individuals navigate and evaluate their educational and debt choices.


I find that individuals who took on loans for undergraduate and/ or graduate school did not act like rational capitalist actors. Almost all were overly optimistic about what their futures would hold. Many did not attend law school with the goal of making more money than they otherwise would have. Instead, they placed a higher value on meaningful work than they placed on their salary. Student loans demand that individuals perform relational work with their parents, their partners, their children as they tried to plan for both future college bills and retirement. Student loans became articulated as “problems” when individuals either struggled to make the payments each month or when the loan and/or loan repayment options constrained their ability to change the direction of their lives to better suit their desires. These findings suggest that the “crisis” in student loans may not be found in the growing dollar total of student loans nationwide or in the default rates of segments of borrowing populations, but rather in the constrictions that debt can place on individuals. I argue that the student loan crisis should not be measured in numbers, but rather in options.