Since the inception of the federal educational loan program in 1965, the amount of federal student loans borrowed annually has increased from approximately $8 billion in today’s dollars to nearly $104 billion in 2017, representing an increase of over 1,200%. Consequently, two out of three college graduates who earned their degree during the 2016-17 academic school year did so with debt, with graduates reporting a median debt of $17,000. Women and students of color are overrepresented among borrowers, particularly Black students, who also borrow larger amounts than their White counterparts to afford higher education. These differences in borrowing may lead to additional repayment barriers for minorities, in addition to existing inequities in wages. Although the emerging evidence suggests that educational debt impacts women more than men, we know little about the outcomes of minority women related to student loan debt.
In an attempt to shed light on the consequences of educational loans, our study examined the association between student loan debt and the transition to motherhood using nationally representative longitudinal data on a U.S. cohort of women born between 1980 and 1984. Accounting for nonrandom selection of incurring student debt, we found that Hispanic women holding educational debt exhibited the greatest decrease in the probability of motherhood both within and outside of marriage, relative to their debt-free peers. White women with student loans only exhibited a reduced probability of motherhood within marriage, whereas the probability of transitioning to nonmarital motherhood was not associated with student debt. Similar to White women, student debt was not associated with nonmarital motherhood among Black women. Counter to expectations, Black women with student loans exhibited an increased probability of marital motherhood relative to their counterparts without debt.
Although explaining this finding is beyond the scope of our study, we posit that the results may reflect unique selective processes into marriage that are associated with higher educational achievements. We note that these unexpected benefits of borrowing among Black students should be closely scrutinized, however, as Black students continue to face the greatest risk of defaulting on their student loan repayments and the black-white disparity in outstanding student loan obligations more than doubles within the four years following college graduation. We recommend that future studies continue to closely examine the long-term consequences of student debt, particularly among disadvantaged minority groups, who continue to experience discrimination in the labor market.
Overall, the results from our study demonstrate that student debt has implications beyond financial considerations, such as the ability to afford a mortgage or make payments on existing bills: The burgeoning trend in educational debt also affects more intimate decisions, like whether or not to marry or have children. Moreover, the downstream consequences of borrowing for college will look different for those who are at the intersections of gender, race/ethnicity, and economic class. Therefore, it is important to consider the disparate consequences in higher educational financing, as researchers and policymakers design policies aimed at reducing the barriers to attending and completing postsecondary programs.
Stella Min is a graduate student in the Sociology Department. Broadly, her research interests include fertility, family inequality, the life course, and health. You can learn more about Stella by visiting her website: Stella-Min.com
Dr. Miles G. Taylor is an Associate Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Associate at the Pepper Institute of Aging and Public Policy. Her research interests include aging, health, and the life course. You can learn more about Dr. Taylor by visiting her website: MilesGTaylor.com
 Among those who report that they currently hold student loan debt, the average amount of student loan debt is $32,731. The average amount of education debt exceeds median debt levels because of (relatively fewer) number of graduates who report that they owe over $50,000 in student loan debt. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. (2017). Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2016-May 2017. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/2017-economic-well-being-of-us-households-in-2016-education-debt-loans.htm
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