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What Would You Do Without Student Debt? A Study From UNC Greensboro Put The Question To Recent Graduates.

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

College graduates who have student debt are more likely to delay milestones like getting married, buying a house or having children.

UNC Greensboro professor Arielle Kuperberg, an associate professor of Sociology and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, says a study she recently published confirms what many young adults know from experience.

In 2017, the researchers surveyed hundreds of undergraduate students who had student loans and were about to graduate. They asked those with student loans what they expected the loans to do for them. The researchers then followed up with a subset of these individuals in 2020 to find out whether their expectations of student loans matched the reality.

Kuperberg recently spoke about her research with WUNC Education Reporter Liz Schlemmer. Here are highlights from their conversation.

A Divide Between College Graduates

Liz Schlemmer: What was your biggest takeaway from your research on student loans?

Arielle Kuperberg: Our main finding is that there's now this new divide between people with and without loans who go to college. About a third are able to graduate without taking on any student debt, and those people are much better off when it comes to long-term marriage and family rates. They actually earn more money in the long term.

The people who take out loans — who tend to be people who come from worse off circumstances beforehand — are not able to enjoy their degree as much. They're not able to get the things that we associate with a happy middle-class life.

Forced To Put Off Big Decisions

Schlemmer: You surveyed recent college graduates who had student loan debt about their expectations, and then you followed up with them 3 years later. What did you find?

Kuperberg: We started out this project looking at college students and saying, "How do you think this [debt] is gonna affect your life?" But then we wanted to answer how did this actually affect their lives?

Arielle Kuperberg
from 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, Brief Report for Council on Contemporary Families

We found a lot of the things people anticipated did happen — a lot of them were putting off marriage or putting off having kids, [they] couldn't buy a house — but in some respects, they were better off than they had expected.

More people thought they would have to live with their parents or live with a roommate or take jobs they didn't want to take in order to pay off loans, and they turned out to not have to do these things as much as they thought they would.

Over half of people thought they would get a better job because they went to college, but if you talk to them 3.5 years after they graduated, only about a fifth say they actually did get a better job because they went to college.

What Would Graduates Do If Debt Was Forgiven?

Schlemmer: You asked graduates what they would do if their student loan debt was forgiven in a year. Is that a nod to policies being discussed at the federal level?

Kuperberg: We started collecting this data years ago in 2017. Even then, people were talking about loan forgiveness. So this idea was out there and we wanted to directly ask, "What if you didn't have loans? What would you do differently?"

A lot of people talked about saving money, paying off other debt, saving up to buy a house, saving for retirement. So these are all things that are not getting done by people who have student loans right now, or are getting done at lower rates.

Arielle Kuperberg
from 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, Brief Report for Council on Contemporary Families

Student Debt And Relationships

Schlemmer: One thing that fascinated me about your research is that you asked people, "Would you break up with someone if they had a certain amount of debt?" Can you tell us more about how student debt affects romantic relationships?

Kuperberg: I myself married someone with a very high amount of student loan debt. I remember it kind of taking me aback when I first heard what the actual number was because it was much more than I had.

23% [of survey respondents] thought they should put off getting married if you had loan debt to repay. We also looked at how people would react to a partner who had a large amount of loans, and many people would put off getting married, they'd put off having children, they would have serious talks with them about it. So it's influencing relationships.

The Big Picture

Schlemmer: Why do these findings matter in the bigger picture and larger dialogue around paying for college?

Kuperberg: We've seen a disinvestment in public education in the United States over the past 40 years, where it used to be that state governments would spend more per student supporting people to go to college. Now, there's more of this idea that it should be on the individual.

There's also just wider trends in society when it comes to young people not getting married. We're now at the highest age of marriage historically that we have records for. We're at the lowest rate of childbearing that we have records for in the United States. These are going to have long-term consequences as our population might basically start to shrink.

Conversation excerpts have been edited for brevity. Arielle Kuperberg's publications on this research can be found here and here.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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