Going Under to Get Ahead: Paying for College in an Age of Uncertainty
AuthorClarke, Hannah E.
Higher education financing
Orientations to debt
MetadataShow full item record
PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction, presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractStudent loans have become a cornerstone of democratized access to higher education. This dissertation contributes a novel approach to conceptualizing the student loan issue: students as consumers—both of college and of the student loans themselves. Through a mixed-method in-depth study of a graduating cohort at a public flagship university, I examine how students perceive these loans and the impact of these perceptions on the subjective experience of contemporary students. I gathered original data using a campus survey of registered seniors, in-depth follow-up interviews with a strategic sample of survey respondents, and a second, post-graduation follow-up interview with the main interview sample approximately two years later. In the first manuscript, I use 111 in-depth interviews to examine the evaluative frameworks students use to assess the legitimacy of student loan-use through the theoretical lens of “economic fictions,” which holds that in the face of unknown outcomes actors rely on socially coordinated narratives about the future to motivate decision-making. I use findings on ‘contested futures’ to argue that the political viability of an economic fiction may be based on a social consensus surrounding the acceptable distribution of risk. In the second manuscript, I present an original conceptual framework for understanding differences between students in how they approach and relate to the use of debt-based aid. I created this concept, which I refer to as orientations to debt, from an iterative analysis of the 178 longitudinal interviews. These orientations to debt cannot be reduced to total loan amount; rather, they are informed by lived experiences with economic (un)certainty and financial control and the information to which a student has access in the present. Among other implications, my findings suggest that variations in student orientations to debt are a likely source of the potential for debt-based aid to alter student trajectories while in college (e.g. dropping out). In the third manuscript, I draw from cognitive linguistic theory and literature on the dual ability of debt to enable as well as constrain in order to present a unique methodological framework that uses metaphorical reasoning—specifically, animal metaphors—as a proxy for student perceptions. Data come from in-depth interviews with 82 student borrowers. Results of this analysis were mapped with student demographic characteristics including race, class, and gender, as well as two additional dichotomous variables that I inductively formed from the interview data: perceived family safety net, and prior disruptive financial event. The results provided a rich and revealing portrait of student perceptions of the role these loans play in their lives: as domestic chore, object of fascination, source of harm, and a constant and incessant burden.
Degree ProgramGraduate College