Where I come from, teachers drilled passive verbs like “expected” right out of us. I can still hear Bill Duffy, in our 20th-century British literature class, raising his voice in a tone both innocent and offended. “By whom?” he wondered.

Good question. A few years ago, I went to Washington and showed up for an appointment at the Department of Education with the intent of confronting the “expecter” doing the expecting, this destroyer of countless dreams of affordable college. But there is no such person, since the federal aid formula comes from statutes, not assistant secretaries acting on their own.

Still, it’s worth answering Mr. Duffy’s question. First and foremost, it’s the federal government doing the expecting here. Its demands carry a kind of psychic weight, according to Caitlin Zaloom, an economic anthropologist and professor at New York University and author of the book “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost.”

“Policies like the E.F.C. are instructions to families and not simply numbers that have to be paid,” she said. “They are moral messages that the government is sending to mothers and fathers about what they are supposed to do to be good parents.”

In other words, kids need education. The government expects parents to pay for it. If you don’t, you just may hinder their success in life. And if any part of your identity is wrapped up in helping your children do better than you have done, well, here’s an advance look at the bill. Got that?

Those children may become expecters, too. After all, if the government is saying that parents are supposed to pay but that they are unable or unwilling to do so, the kids could begin resenting their parents. And then, parental guilt. And some borrowing, or a lot of it.

The colleges have expectations, too. They see that E.F.C. figure and may want even more information. You fill out another form, and then comes more judgment about your supposed ability to pay.

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