This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.
As an undergraduate student 15 years ago, I was told that virtually any degree would lead to higher pay – any degree. I felt assured that, despite being a first-generation, Pell eligible student, I could confidently borrow without having to worry about my mounting debt. But after college I found myself among the millions of student loan borrowers who are living the title of Elizabeth Tandy’s 2021 book, Indentured Students: How Government Guaranteed Loans Left Generations Drowning in College Debt.
In Indentured Students, Shermer offers a powerful and thought-provoking examination of the impact of student debt in the United States. Through detailed research and compelling interviews, she sheds light on the complex and often troubling history of student borrowing, showing how student loans — initially created to supply access to higher education — have become a tool for corporations and the government to profit from the dreams and aspirations of college students. Indentured Students also highlights the personal experiences of students affected by student loan debt who describe how it has changed their lives and their ability to pursue their goals. The major takeaway is that student debt is a critical issue requiring collective action and a commitment to social justice in postsecondary education.
Shermer’s work underscores the adverse impact of student loan borrowing, particularly on marginalized populations, and demonstrates that student debt is not only a financial issue but also a social justice issue requiring urgent attention and action. She argues for rethinking the current system of student lending and creating alternative models of funding higher education that prioritize access and affordability for all. For example, she recommends starting afresh with debt cancellation and then overhauling the government’s investment in higher education so universities can focus less on revenue from tuition.
Some readers may find the subject matter and academic writing style challenging to read, as it is intended for a scholarly audience interested in the history and politics of education and debt in the United States. I wouldn’t recommend this book as a practical guide for everyday financial aid administrators, but Shermer’s detailed research, extensive use of primary sources, and sophisticated analysis of policy and economic trends make it well-suited for historians, political scientists, and scholars of education policy. Its exhaustive history of student loans is a long read, but the message and thesis are important for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of this critical issue and its impact on students and society. Once readers move beyond the well-developed history, the book also offers engaging narratives and stories about students, bringing in the personal, human side that inspires the social justice Shermer seeks.
Even after reading the comprehensive research and analysis presented in the book, I found myself wondering what financial aid administrators could do to change the situation. I realized I’m not only a product of the problem (given that I am still swimming in student loan debt), but I also contribute to the problem when I use the same “borrowing for college is an investment in your future” line with my students without taking the time to discuss the realities of debt burden with them or help them look for alternatives to borrowing. But even solutions like increasing work-study present problems. While it may reduce debt, the amount is usually not significant enough to have a major impact, and it can create other injustices on campus. As Shermer notes, and I've witnessed, many institutions assign student employees roles that should belong, or once belonged, to full-time staff. In addition, such “solutions” do nothing to address the underlying problems of rising college costs, inadequate resources available to cover those costs, and profit-motivated student lending practices.
Perhaps beyond inspiring changes in how we work with students, a book like Indentured Students can serve to generate discussion among financial aid and other higher education professionals that will eventually shape reform. The fundamental changes we need must come at the ballot box and within our education policy.
"Indentured Students: How Government Guaranteed Loans Left Generations Drowning in College Debt" by Elizabeth Tandy Shermer. Belknap Press, 2021, pp. 400.
Farrah Lokey is an associate director of financial aid and scholarships at Angelo State University in Texas. She began her career in higher education at Angelo State working with financial aid and scholarships, and later she transitioned to academic advising in the Norris-Vincent College of Business. In returning to the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships, she plans to partner with the university’s new financial wellness program to help prepare students for life after college. Lokey holds a Bachelor of Arts in English (technical and business writing) and a Master of Education in student development and leadership in higher education from Angelo State University
Publication Date: 10/16/2023