How student loans stop Americans from marrying

Millennials would rather pay off their student debt than spend money getting hitched.

Photo: Ehud Neuhaus via Unsplash
  • High levels of Millennial student loan debt is slowing down marriage.
  • Half of millennials are still single at 34, while nearly 70% of boomers were married by their mid-30s.
  • New report explains the connection between debt and marriage.

National student debt in the U.S. currently stands at a stunning $1.4 trillion, with half of all first-time, full-time students owing money. Only the country's homeowners have a greater amount of debt. Entering the job market burdened by the continual drain on income of paying off a student loan affects salary considerations and ultimately lowers the quality of life for those in debt. It also, according to a just-published report, looks to be affecting the age at which people, especially millennials, feel their lives have finally stabilized enough to get married. And there's an interesting upside to marrying later: The divorce rate is dropping.

The new study

'The Changing Nature of the Association Between Student Loan Debt and Marital Behavior in Young Adulthood', published in Journal of Family and Economic Issues, compares statistics relating to two populations, gathered by the U.S. Department of Labor's National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY). The two cohorts are:

  • NLSY79 surveyed people who were born from 1957 to 1965, and who were first interviewed in 1979.
  • NLS97 surveyed people born between 1980 to 1984 and first interviewed in 1997.

Fenaba Addo of the University of Wisconsin Madison led the study and analyzed the NLSY data of boomers and millennials, who were demographically similar except for their ages.

Say “I do,” or “don’t”

Our attitudes about marriage and its purpose are no doubt one part of the reason. For the NLSY79 group, getting married was simply the next relationship step after meeting and falling in love. Marriage for millennials is more of a maybe-yes/maybe-no decision, a reflection of each partner's current goals and position in life. As sociologist Philip Cohen says, "Marriage is more and more an achievement of status, rather than something that people do regardless of how they're doing."

Photo: mariocutroneo via Flickr

Divorce benefit

Boomers' more dewy-eyed expectations of marriage no doubt led to lots of early unions that ended in divorce as couples grew up and apart. Now divorce rates are falling, down about 18% in the last eight years. With boomer divorce rates still doubling below 65 and tripling above that age, a significant share of the credit has to go to millennials.

Living together

It's not that people aren't still hooking up. Our view of living together prior to marriage, or forgoing nuptials altogether, has also shifted. So while about a third of the NLSY79 cohort got married without living together first, this is a relative rarity in the NLSY97 group, with just 14.8% taking vows before sharing a space. In the 1979 group, 6.7% of married couples reported having cohabited first, while that's risen to 22.4% among millennials. Interestingly, the people with the highest education level are least likely to live together, according to the new study—of course, they also have the most most debt to manage.

(Addo, et al)

The two big differentiators in the NLSY97 cohort

Later marriages, if marriage at all

One major finding of Addo's analysis is that, while nearly 70% of boomers were married by their mid-30s, less than half of millennials were similarly hitched at that age. Marriage rates altogether are dropping, with 9% fewer marriages over the last 25 years. 55.35% of millennial women and 50.87% of men were still single at 34.

Unprecedented debt

The second major insight? When other factors are accounted for, education and its costs remain as the other major differentiator of this cohort, and thus the most likely influence on the dropping marriage rate. In fact, the NLSY79 cohort, there was a positive correlation between education debt and marriage—that's now flipped.

People in the NLSY97 group are far more likely to attend college than boomers were, and the price tag in the U.S. for higher education is now nearly prohibitive for most students. Between the two cohorts, according to the study, "education loan debt increased thirty percentage points among young adults with at least 4 years of post-secondary education." For 2015-2016, the average amount of debt for a bachelor's degree was $30,301—that's a lot of money to free up as one embarks upon adulthood and a career. For a graduate student the situation's even worse.

Photo: Sharon McCutcheon via Unsplash

The toll student debt takes on family-building

Student debt in the U.S. is a growing crisis that's moving the traditional idea of the American Dream out of reach for many.

Included in that dream for many is marriage and starting a family. This debt adds a lot of extra financial strain as one embarks upon adulthood with entry-level income. That monthly payment makes everything harder, including feeling settled and secure enough to make a lifelong commitment such as getting married or starting a family.

American education: It’s colleges, not college students, that are failing

Who is to blame for the U.S.'s dismal college graduation rate? "Radical" educator Dennis Littky has a hunch.

Percentage of college student dropouts by age at enrollment: 2-year and 4-year institutions

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • COVID-19 has magnified the challenges that underserved communities face with regard to higher education, such as widening social inequality and sky-high tuition.
  • At College Unbound, where I am president, we get to know students individually to understand what motivates them, so they can build a curriculum based on goals they want to achieve.
  • My teaching mantra: Everything is permitted during COVID-19. Everything is permitted during COVID-19. Everything is permitted during COVID-19.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists observe strange lights in the heart of the Milky Way

Astronomers spot periodic lights coming from near the black hole at the center of our galaxy.

Hot spots around the black hole at the center of the Milky Way may produce periodic lights.

Credit: Keio University
Surprising Science
  • Astronomers in Japan observe periodic lights coming from the region near the black hole at the center of our galaxy.
  • The twinkling may be produced by hot spots in the accretion disk around the black hole.
  • The mysterious region studied features extreme gravity.
Keep reading Show less

These countries are leading the transition to sustainable energy

Sweden tops the ranking for the third year in a row.

AXEL SCHMIDT/DDP/AFP via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

What does COVID-19 mean for the energy transition? While lockdowns have caused a temporary fall in CO2 emissions, the pandemic risks derailing recent progress in addressing the world's energy challenges.

Keep reading Show less

What does the red pill really show you?

Neo's superhuman powers were only inside of The Matrix. The outside world offered a different reality.

A fan cosplays as Morpheus from The Matrix during the 2018 New York Comic-Con at Javits Center on October 7, 2018 in New York City.

Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Culture & Religion
  • The "red pill" came into prominence as a way to break free of mental slavery in the 1999 movie, "The Matrix."
  • In a new essay, Julian Walker points out Neo's powers only worked inside of the simulation—reality is a different story.
  • The red vs blue pill question is a pop culture phenomenon, often used in questionable circumstances.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…