Document Type

Journal Article

Date of this Version



This paper has been published in a journal as:

Bryer, E. (2022). “Not Nearly as Bad”: Social Comparisons and the Debt Experience. Socius, 8.


Despite the growing awareness of the role that families play in the experience of student borrowing, debt is still understood as a private experience. As student debt becomes more widespread, individuals are increasingly likely to know others with student loans, yet questions remain about how others—friends, acquaintances, and colleagues—may shape the way student borrowers make sense of their debt. This study draws on interviews with recent master’s degree recipients to examine how young adults understand their educational debt in relation to others. The author finds that borrowers are enmeshed in “debt dense” social networks that both normalize debt and facilitate evaluative social comparisons against others that accentuate borrowers’ own efforts and responsibility. These findings demonstrate a role for occupational and educational social networks in shaping borrowers’ experience of indebtedness but also suggest limits to framing student debt as a collective problem.



I am grateful to Emily Hannum and Annette Lareau for their generous support throughout this project. I also wish to thank the Socius editors and anonymous reviewers for their insightful feedback. I presented earlier versions of this article to the Education and Inequality workshop at the University of Pennsylvania, the 2022 American Educational Research Association conference, and my classmates in the Sociology of the Family. I appreciate the thoughtful feedback from these groups.


The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This research was supported by the School of Arts and Sciences, the Gertrude and Otto Pollak Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through grant R305B200035 to the University of Pennsylvania. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent views of the granting agencies.


student debt, student loan debt, student loans, educational debt, student borrowing, loan repayment, indebtedness, racial wealth gap, social networks, professionals, professions, graduate students, master's programs, repayment, social psychology, economic sociology, in-depth interviews



Date Posted: 28 November 2022

This document has been peer reviewed.