How Student Debt Has Contributed to ‘Delayed’ Adulthood

The irony of attending college in the U.S. is that the burden of paying for it can prevent it from serving its purpose of launching young adults into stable, fulfilling lives.

Blurry photo of a student in a graduation cap and gown with a spinning rainbow wheel over their face
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic ; Getty

Many students go to college to climb the economic ladder and set themselves up for a successful adulthood. Earning a post-secondary credential can make the difference in securing a job that offers a long-term career and financial security. But this isn’t a guarantee. Sometimes, the weight of loans can set students back further, economically, from where they started. (This is especially true for the nearly 40 percent of students with loans who leave college with loan debt and no degree.) The typical student who borrows to attend college and does graduate carries nearly $25,000 in debt, according to an analysis by the Department of Education. The irony of attending college in the U.S. is that the burden of paying for it can prevent it from serving its purpose of launching young adults into stable, fulfilling lives.

President Joe Biden’s promise to forgive up to $20,000 in student-loan debt for anyone who received a Pell Grant and $10,000 for those earning less than $125,000 a year has left some excited, others conflicted, and many unconvinced that it solves the real problem. But what this policy will do, as soon as it’s enacted, is give many people the opportunity to move forward on goals and dreams they have for their adult lives—getting their own place, having a wedding, saving for their children’s college education—that they might have given up on. At the very least, the loss or reduction of monthly student-loan payments will make people’s lives less stressful, and maybe let them dream a little bigger.

Student debt can lead many people to defer important life decisions and milestones. In a 2001 survey, 36 percent of young people with student loans chose to delay moving out of a family member’s home because of debt. Over the years, ballooning student debt has also contributed to the rising average ages of when people marry, have children, and buy a home. Many young people say that they want to establish themselves financially before taking such steps. While society often judges young adults harshly for making decisions like these and delaying some of the responsibilities of adulthood, these are rational responses to economic instability.

Of course, the impact of debt is not simply limited to deferring the responsibilities and commitments of adulthood. Many college students embark on earning their degrees with those commitments already solidified. A study by Higher Learning Advocates reminds us that 37 percent of today’s students are older than 25, 40 percent attend school part-time, 64 percent are already in the workforce, and 24 percent are raising children. But debt can lead them to defer life goals too. Instead of delaying marriage and parenthood, they may be delaying finishing their studies. They may need to prolong the time it takes to get their degree while they balance work, family, and school, thus taking longer to translate their goals into reality. With more limited free time than students who don’t have work or parenting responsibilities, they also may not be able to build their résumé and gain the leadership experiences that come from extracurricular activities and internships.

These trade-offs have been happening for a long time. In our archival research on undergraduates’ experiences from the 1970s, we documented how young people benefited from the exploratory time that college allows. We also saw how this important project was interrupted by the financial burdens some of them faced.

Many of these students had their future financial stability on their mind as they chose career paths. Some were ultimately pulled toward what they called a “default path”—one that appeared to offer the greatest financial stability, sometimes at the expense of long-standing interests and talents. Others felt pulled to give up career aspirations in education and public service for more lucrative pursuits that they described as less purposeful. People facing down mountains of student debt today may feel pressured to make some of these same trade-offs.

Early results from a follow-up study (which has not yet been published) with the graduates from the class of 1975 who were featured in our book, The End of Adolescence, offer new insights into the long-term consequences of the financial pressures they experienced as undergraduates. Nearly 50 years after graduation, now in their 60s and navigating retirement from the workforce, they have the opportunity to both listen to the recordings of their younger selves and reflect on the decisions that they made during college with the benefit of hindsight. In our preliminary findings from interviews with more than half of the original participants, we found that the alumni whose financial pressures dominated their decision making during college were most likely to be dissatisfied with their career and life decisions at midlife and more likely to have switched careers along the way.

We are shortchanging young people when society offers them the chance to imagine a better future only to burden them with debt that keeps them from realizing it. Forgiving student-loan debt cannot erase the trade-offs that so many young people have had to make along the way, but it can take many dreams and milestones off the back burner moving forward.