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 and continue to rise today. Economists and the general public are at odds about what that means. The public, as evidenced by news coverage, Op-eds, social movements and polling data suggest that student loans have become a “crisis” which negatively affects the lives of young Americans. Economists, meanwhile, argue that there is no “crisis” in student loans. They argue instead that the notion of “crisis” is fueled by the fear of the growing dollar amount student loans represent and the false narrative that many students are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Perhaps, more importantly, they argue that the average student loan pays for itself in higher earnings over the life course making student loans a financially sensible option for borrowers and society. However, economic models which measure the cost-benefit of student loans neglect to consider the lived experience of student loans, non-monetary justifications for continued education, ramifications for the family in the loan process and what exactly most people would consider to be the real “problem” 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 and/or working as lawyers in the Northeastern US. I conducted life course interviews with respondents between the ages of 24 to 49 who currently hold their Juris Doctorate, work professionally as lawyers, and who are residing in the Northeastern part of the US. Lawyers are an excellent occupational group to study since their circumstances intersect with how the public and the economists talk about student loans. J.D. recipients have the high loan amounts which fit with the public narrative of high debt levels but, as economists would point out, they are “fine” in that they have lower default rates than undergraduate students and benefit from government repayment/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, placing a higher value on meaningful work rather than salary. Student loans effected how respondents thought about their parents, their partners and how they would manage their children’s future college bills.  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 which debt can place on individuals. I argue that the student loan crisis should not be measured in numbers but rather in options. 

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