Frederick Wherry: The Hidden Costs of Debt: The Case of Student Loans


Monday, November 11, 2019, 12:00pm to 1:30pm


Allison Dining Rm

Frederick Wherry, Townsend Martin, Class of 1917 Professor of Sociology, Princeton University.

Frederick WherryDebt is a critical but poorly understood contributor to social inclusion and its opposite; it enables the movement of future resources for use in the present, fueling human capital development, asset-building, and consumption smoothing. Debt can also constrain, damage, and stigmatize its beneficiaries when they fail to meet the terms of repayment.

Drawing on a stratified sample of 564 complaint narratives submitted to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regarding student loans, we show how debtors interpret the experience of debt collection as affecting their interactions at home, work, and across multiple social domains as they make sense of its costs and its impact on their access to opportunity.

We identify two costs of the debt that have not been specified in the literature. First, debtors believe that the debt collection process strains or damages valuable interpersonal relationships (relational damages), spilling over onto their social support networks and their workplace relationships, potentially harming employment and promotion prospects. Second, debtors see the collection process as impeding their ability to demonstrate their autonomy, credibility, and sense of honor. Ironically, often described as a pathway to opportunity, education debt negates the possibility through the collection process.

(Frederick Wherry will present the paper that is co-authored with Parijat Chakrabarti, Isabel Jijon, and Kathleen Donnelly.)

About the speaker

Frederick Wherry is a Townsend Martin, Class of 1917 Professor of Sociology at Princeton University and Director of the Dignity and Debt Network (, a partnership between the Social Science Research Council and Princeton.

Credit Where It's Due: Rethinking Financial CitizenshipHe, Kristin Seefeldt, and Alvarez Alvarez are the authors of Credit Where It’s Due: Rethinking Financial Citizenship (Russell Sage Foundation, 2019). The book includes a Foreword by José A. Quiñonez.

Wherry is also the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Consumption (with Ian Woodward, September 2019), and  editor of the four-volume Sage Encyclopedia of Economics and Society as well as Money Talks: How Money Really Works (with Nina Bandelj and Viviana A. Zelizer). He is the author or editor of four other books or volumes. 

He was the 2018 President of the Social Science History Association ( and the past chair of the Economic Sociology Section and the Consumers and of the Consumption Section of the American Sociological Association. 

He participates in a working group on work and wealth at the Aspen Institute and serves in an advisory capacity to the Boston Federal Reserve (Community Development Research Advisory Council) and the Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business at the Birmingham Business School (UK).

Before joining the Princeton Department he was a Professor of Sociology at Yale University and Co-Director of the Center for Cultural Sociology. He has also served on the faculty of the University of Michigan and Columbia University. He currently serves as a Selector for the Luce Scholars Program (Henry Luce Foundation).

He earned his undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a Morehead-Cain Scholar, his MPA from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, and his PhD in Sociology from Princeton. 

Learn more about Frederick Wherry's work

See also: Fall 2019