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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT: Family Briefing

Costs of Tuition

Student Loans Are a Drag

by Nicole M. King

With the class of 2014 having just graduated or about to graduate, and the class of 2018 making final college-enrollment decisions, many students are pondering the subject of student debt.

And well they should. A February story in TIME reported that the average amount of student debt for the class of 2012 was $29,400. Over the past ten years, student debt nationwide has grown from an already staggering $253 billion to a suffocating $1.08 trillion—a 300 percent increase.

Article originally appeared in
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The problem, of course, is that debt keeps America's young graduates from pursuing life as they otherwise might—choosing careers for money over passion, delaying major purchases such as a home, even moving back in with their parents. A lesser-known aspect of the student-debt dilemma, however, is its relation to family background and family formation.

Increased student debt reflects, at least in part, the fragmented nature of the American family. In a 2011 study, Rice University researchers Ruth N. López Turley and Matthew Demond found that parental marital status was the most significant and consistent indicator of how much parents contributed toward the cost of their children's college education. While married parents covered a whopping 77 percent of their children's college costs, divorced and remarried parents covered 42 percent and 53 percent, respectively, even though their costs were lower.

Burdened Graduates

But while having divorced or remarried parents signals greater student debt, that debt, in turn, makes it much more difficult for college graduates to set about the task of building their own lives and families.

In a 2010 piece for The Family in America, Allan Carlson argues that an increasing student debt burden depresses both marriage and fertility. In former eras, wise parents and guardians understood that couples needed extra financial help in the form of a dowry payment or other wedding gifts to set up a household. "Until the last few decades," writes Carlson, "no known society has ever launched large numbers of young adults on their life course carrying substantial debt." Not surprisingly, we are now seeing a great "birth dearth," with the average age of first marriage and first childbirth being the latest they have ever been in American history.

The academy, Carlson writes, is partly to blame for the increased reliance on student loans. In 1975, loan income made up less than 3 percent of college and university budgets. Today, however, loans account for about 20 percent of all higher-education income. And the academy has faced no pressure to be fiscally responsible, so it has recklessly imposed skyrocketing tuition costs on students, with the result that many of them face severe financial burdens upon graduation.

Adjustments Needed

To make any kind of change happen, however, we Americans have to adjust how we think about college. We have bought in—hook, line, and sinker—to the "American dream" of a college education for all. As a result, the value of a bachelor's degree has been steadily decreasing, and more universities and colleges have become expensive technical schools rather than places of higher learning as they try to justify their existence in a bleak job market.

What, then, should the prospective class of 2018 or 2019 do? They can begin by carefully weighing their options. State schools and even online schools offer a less expensive route to a bachelor's degree, if that is a goal. Apprenticeships and trade schools might not be a bad way to a career, either. The world can't operate without plumbers, electricians, and computer techs, after all. A pricey, private-school education is undeniably a nice thing to have, but like all nice things, it comes with a certain cost.

The problem is, for too many young people, that cost is delayed marriage and children, two of the greatest blessings God has put upon this earth. 

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