Study sheds new light on how student loan debt affects graduates

Posted on April 08, 2021

students walk on campus

students walk on campus

Researchers at UNC Greensboro and Rutgers University-Camden have released a report that sheds new light on how student loan debt affects the lives of college graduates over time.

The researchers have been following students’ experiences with college debt since 2017, through a combination of extensive survey data and in-person interviews with a cohort of students from both UNCG and Rutgers University-Camden.

In 2017, researchers asked students what they expected to get from college and how they thought college debt would affect them. In 2020, the researchers followed up with a subset of those who had graduated to assess how their expectations matched reality and how their lives would change if their loans were forgiven.

Arielle Kuperberg headshot
Dr. Arielle Kuperberg

Their findings are summarized in a report, “The Difference Debt Makes: College Students and Grads on How Student Debt Affects Their Life Choices — and What They Would Do Differently if it Were Forgiven,” authored by Dr. Arielle Kuperberg, a sociology professor at UNCG and Dr. Joan Maya Mazelis of Rutgers University-Camden.

The report combines survey results published in Sociological Inquiry with follow-up surveys prepared especially for the Council on Contemporary Families.

Key Findings:

  • Nearly one-fifth (18 percent) of graduates reported they could not buy a house because of their loans.
  • 22 percent said they had foregone or delayed graduate school because of their loan debt.
  • The combination of college debt and COVID-19 also affected the family decisions of graduates. Almost one-fifth said they were delaying marriage until their loans were paid off, and 20 percent were delaying children.
  • In some ways, the undergraduates surveyed in 2017 over-estimated the extent to which their college debts would burden them. But in other ways they gained less from the loans they took out than they had expected.
  • Fewer reported being forced to work at jobs they did not like or having to live with parents or roommates to pay off their debts than had anticipated these outcomes back in 2017. But only 21 percent of graduates in the 2020 follow-up reported they had been able to get a better job because of their degree.

When asked what they would do if their loans were forgiven:

  • Almost three-fourths said they would put the money in savings, and more than half said they would save up to buy a house.
  • Among graduates, two-thirds said they would use that money to pay off other debt, and almost 53 percent would save for retirement.
  • About 20 percent said they would get married or have children sooner.

Why This Matters:

  • In the past 30 years, the percentage of students at four-year colleges who take out loans to finance their education has grown from less than half to a full two-thirds, and their average debt load – in constant dollars – has nearly doubled.
  • Politicians have proposed plans to reduce or forgive these loans, and some universities have instituted their own loan-reduction programs.

Link to study:

Link to Sociological Inquiry article:

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