Loyola University Chicago

College of Arts & Sciences

Spotlight On: Elizabeth Shermer

Elizabeth Shermer, PhD

Shermer Examines the Dynamics Behind Student Loan Programs

Elizabeth Shermer, PhD, associate professor in the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University Chicago, has published Indentured Students: How Government-Guaranteed Loans Left Generations Drowning in College Debt (Harvard University Press, 2021). In her book, Shermer untangles the history of America’s student-loan program and discovers that the story of skyrocketing college debt is not merely one of good intentions gone wrong. In fact, she contends, the federal student loan program was never intended to make college affordable.

Shermer argues in Indentured Students that, despite popular assumptions, the federal loan programs were started with the worst of intentions. It was an effort to avoid substantial investment in a public good (higher education) and, as with other government-guaranteed financial products, exacerbated racial and gender inequalities.

Shermer’s book emphasizes that the power and importance of finance, as well as today’s partisan divides, are nothing new. Creative financing has long been important to federal programs promising support for basic social needs–like health, housing, and education–and fights within and between both major parties have historically made reform difficult to achieve in Washington.   

Shermer is a historian broadly concerned about the intersections between U.S. politics and economy. For the past few years, she has written widely on those connections for scholarly and public audiences, including the readers of The Washington Post, Dissent, Bloomberg, and The Hill, but she has also focused on getting out a history of the student loan industry and the federal policies that intentionally created them.

Now, Shermer is publishing a variety of short pieces which highlight the issues raised by Indentured Students in the context of the 10-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the infrastructure plan currently being debated in Washington, and the campaign to cancel student debt. Shermer has also returned to a project she began prior to starting Indentured Students, which intends to revise popular understandings of the rise and fall of public higher education, showing that private money has long been a part of public higher education.

“Professor Shermer’s work brings important historical context and perspective to socioeconomic issues that are the subject of intense debate today,” says Peter J. Schraeder, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University Chicago. “By engaging tough questions and bringing a deeper understanding to complex issues faced by policymakers and our society, Professor Shermer’s research will hopefully contribute to more effective solutions.”

Once she finishes that book, Shermer wants to turn to the history of the paystub. The tentatively-titled Paystub Privileges will explore the history of the major, often overlooked, tax deductions on American paychecks in order to explore which workers have historically been considered essential and how that has changed over time.