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Making Meaning of Student Debt: How Undergraduate Students Make Sense of their Student Loan and Credit Card Debt


The meanings that college students make of their student debt were explored through the use of a survey (n ≈ 1200) as well as in-depth interviews (n = 84). Full-time undergraduate students from three institutions of higher education in Southern California were asked about how they used student loans and credit cards, how they might respond to hypothetical increases in their debt balances, their attitudes and feelings about debt, and how debt was related to their college goals and college experiences. I found that while students attending different institutions and of different demographic backgrounds held varied attitudes towards money use and college goals, these differences did not extend to student debt. Overall, students viewed their student loans in a net-positive way, as investments rather than burdens, and as tools that enhance and smooth the college experience rather than disrupt it. Far from the exaggerated rhetoric of the popular press, those students who are currently in college did not view student debt as a crisis.

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