Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Student Loan Debt is Highly Effective Contraception

The recent launch of the Project on Student Debt has put the spotlight on the high levels of indebtedness that many college graduates carry. Reaching across the middle of the political spectrum, the project is led by former Clinton administration education advisor Robert Shireman, and it counts among its lead sponsors the American Enterprise Institute. Debt limits what students can do after college, and what they think they can afford to do for decades after graduation. In particular, highly indebted students often rule out low-paying public service work.

Allan Carlson, head of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, raises a further intriguing possibility. He believes that debt makes some students put off marriage and children until they are financially secure. Student loans, he says, are "a highly effective form of contraception."

Carlson cites as evidence the correlation between education and small family size. This seems to me a very tenuous connection. There are many factors that go into small family size that also come from education, such as the large proportion of their child-bearing years that highly educated people use to finish their education and launch their careers, the greater expense that they have to plan for in raising children who will in turn become highly educated, and the belief, still taught in many schools, that there are too many people in our country.

Nonetheless, I think Allan Carlson is probably right that college graduates with high debt would postpone children until they had brought their debt down to manageable levels. I would expect this to be especially true of women launching business or professional careers, who could expect their personal income to go from comfortable to zero in the first years of having children. That prospect is scary enough even with no indebtedness.

Carlson’s proposal is a $5,000 per child tax credit to pay off or forgive educational debt. I have some qualms about this, as it would skew the tax code even further toward the better off. Still, there would be a social benefit in making it easier for our most educated citizens to have children. Moreover, our most educated women are also the ones facing the biggest pressure to be in school or working during their prime child-bearing years as it is. Educational loan forgiveness would target exactly the people who suffer an unintended demographic injury by the current system.

I would especially welcome responses from people whose decisions to have children, and when, were affected by their school debts.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Heya! Have you seen this article? What do you think?

"Do Babies Matter? The Effect of Family Formation on the Lifelong Careers of Academic Men and Women"
By Mary Ann Mason and Marc Goulden

For women academics, deciding to have a baby is a career decision. Traditional narratives of the academic career must adapt to new demands and new constituencies.

s.kimbro said...

Our decision about having children and when we would do this has been influenced by our student loan debts. In our case, we cannot wait until we bring the student loan debt down because that won’t happen for a very long time. Why? The salaries our graduate schools gave us the impression we would be making are nowhere near the reality of the job market. For example, the entire amount of my monthly paychecks goes to pay the student loans and whatever else is left goes to the mortgage...and we are NOT living above our means. You can’t save anything when there is nothing left over. We originally decided that for us to be able to afford for me to take a year or two off to have a child, I would have to work at least another five or six years so we could save up bonuses and other windfalls and even this might not be enough to maintain our basic financial needs. This would put me in my mid-30s, which at age 35 the ob/gyns already label you “high-risk” and require more prenatal tests. And, if we wanted to have more than one child and not have them back to back then we would be having our second child when I was almost or at 40 years old.

We finally realized that the student loan debts were not going anywhere anytime in the next 30 years. We also realized that if we waited and tried to save up more that it could have two consequences: 1) we would have trouble conceiving a child and/or face more pregnancy risks because of my age or 2) we would not be able to have the size family that we wanted (2-3 children). We decided to have a child now while I am at age 30 and just do the best we can financially without getting into further debt. This means making sacrifices in our quality of living. It hasn’t been easy and it really hasn’t saved us all that much so far. We are relying a lot on the generosity of our parents to fill in the gaps (and this comes with some reluctance and guilt). I may have to find a part-time night job when I am home with the baby to make ends meet. Some people might find it surprising that an experienced computer programmer and a lawyer who was an editor on law review are having to make these kinds of decisions because their student loan payments are so ridiculously high. There is an assumption with the people we meet that because of our educations we are or are going to be well-off financially. I believe my husband and I are bitter about the student loans because we were fed unrealistic expectations from our academic institutions, mainly the graduate schools. We trusted that the salaries we would earn right off the bat would at least allow us to maintain our standard of living, much less pay for the student loans themselves. (I’m not even going into how my professional career and salary will be negatively affected by my taking time off to have children.) We never thought it would force us to make decisions about the number of children we would have or when we would start a family.

When I can’t afford to send my child to music lessons or take her on a family vacation to experience other parts of the world because we need that extra money for student loan payments, I will feel monumentally selfish and guilty. My husband and I keep reassuring each other that we may not be able to afford to send our children to a private undergrad college like our parents did for us, but at least we will be able to give them two highly educated and culturally enriched parents to learn from. That has to count for something?

Gruntled said...

S. Kimbro, I think your story is common. I know we had graduate school friends who got themselves into mortgages on top of their gigantic school debts that really boxed them in when it came to family planning. It seemed that the college debts were manageable, but the graduate/professional school debts were just unsupported. In our year as DINKS (double income, no kids), we paid ahead five years on my wife's law school debts, which was a necessary breather when we had kids.

Colleges spend huge amounts on financial aid. I wouldn't write off a good private college.

Denis Hancock said...

Well, there were a number of somewhat independent factors that we tended to lump under "grad student mode". These included student debt, theses, lower incomes, no fixed address, etcetera.

Add to that a 2 year stint as a school bus driver, which for me was a more powerful contraceptive than student debt...

Whatever the reason, we were married 10 years, 4 of which involved graduate school, before we had our child. Our school debt was gone, we both had good jobs, and we still waited 6 years to have a child. Of course, in that 6 years, we also established a domicile and a work record.

Gruntled said...

Did waiting ten years affect the number of children you ended up with?

Denis Hancock said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Denis Hancock said...

Quite possibly. I was 40 when my son was born. I will be 58 when he graduates high school, and 62 when he graduates college (assuming he follows the usual path).

The scary thing is that if he waits as long as I did before marriage (29) and begetting a grandchild for my wife and I, I may well be gone.

In some ways, I wish we had gotten with the reproductive proram a few years earlier, but I am satisfied with the way things have turned out.

By-the-way -- Happy Thanksgiving!

Marty said...

This is all so wierd... that getting a decent education -- so you can get a decent job -- so you can finance a decent home... means you cannot afford to have kids.

I mean, what was the point of it all? Poor D.H. may well be gone before becoming a grandfahter... and yet my own grandfather (he's 92) bounces great-great grandchildren on his knee regularly! But he quit school after 6th grade of course, to work in the mines -- this was during the depression.

Funny how the wealtheir our society becomes, the poorer we seem to be getting... okay maybe it's not funny at all...

Gruntled said...

I think Boomers had a longer adolescence than generations before or after (no offense, Denis), so that extreme of delaying adult life may not be repeated. Still, structural factors, like debt load, have an effect even when the culture changes.

All of which makes me renew my prediction of a new natalist movement. When the educated classes discover that they are going to have few children and never see grandchildren, we may see people with power start to think children are good again, instead of just a tolerable strain on the environment.

Denis Hancock said...

Here's an interesting sociological phenomenon -- I married a woman from a farming society where the men married late (in their 30s or even 40s) and the women married young (late teens, early 20s). Without even being aware of it, the age spread and age at marriage between me and my wife is quite typical for her side of the family.

It really showed at family reunions. There were not much more than three generations in the male line, but 4 with a potential for a 5th in the female line.

I'm not a sociologist, so I'm just guessing that the men are too busy getting established on the farm to go a'courting.

Gruntled said...

It takes time to get your own land -- especially if you have to wait to inherit. Do you think you wife was subconsciously waiting until you seemed old enough to be a mature husband?

Denis Hancock said...

Probably not. She's still waiting for a mature husband...

Actually, it was about 10 years into our marriage of nearly 25 years that I settled into my career as a computer professional.

Aimee said...

As a current lawyer with the loans to prove it, I can definitely say that my loans are making me wait to have children. Currently, my student loans total $80k +. I work at one of those low paying social service jobs - because I want to. If it was just me paying my bills, I would never be able to support myself much less another person. Fortunately, my husband just became a lawyer (with no debt) and took a high paying job as a plaintiff's attorney (something he loves). With our combined salaries, we can see the light burning faintly way at the end of the tunnel of debt. If we pay on my student loans and still sock money away where we can, we may be able to afford a house or a kid in a few years. But probably not both. Rock meet hard place.

Gruntled said...

In our yuppie days we knew many professional couples who bought a mortgage on two incomes, then found they could not afford to stop work to have kids. The nursery in our church in DC was full of the One Precious Child of 40-something professional parents. I thought of them as the younger sibling of the mortgage. Myself, I would say, save for a baby first; the house can wait longer.