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caption: Author Caitlyn Zaloom 
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Author Caitlyn Zaloom
Credit: Courtesy of Princeton University Press

College at any cost?

There’s a scene in the television show The West Wing: Two White House staffers missed their ride on Air Force One. They’re stuck at a hotel bar in South Bend, Indiana. A middle-class man taking his daughter to see colleges tells them his story.

"I never imagined that, $55,000 a year, I’d have trouble making ends meet. And my wife brings in another $25,000… It should be hard. I like that it's hard…but it should be a little easier. Just a little easier. Because in that difference is, everything. "

That episode aired in 2002. The problem it explored -- how to manage the rising cost of education -- has only worsened. Americans owe $1.6 trillion in student loan debt.

While some presidential candidates are calling for change, including possible debt forgiveness, the prospect of relief may seem distant to many.

Caitlyn Zaloom is an anthropologist and associate professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University. When a favorite student came to her in tears over her college debt, Zaloom sought to better understand what was going on.

The result is her book, “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost.” Her work explores the moral dilemma between paying for college or retirement; how many students don’t know the details of their financial predicament; the fact that most states are cutting their higher education budgets; and the modern reality of college as a speculative endeavor.

Zaloom spoke with KUOW’s Ross Reynolds at Town Hall Seattle on November 20. KUOW’s Sonya Harris recorded the event.