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.