Rising student debt levels are changing how millions of people approach major milestones and core financial decisions, affecting longstanding social and economic patterns.
Consider homeownership. Owning a home used to be a key marker of adulthood and maturity. But homeownership has plummeted among Americans under age 35, from 43.3 percent in the first quarter of 2005 to 34.6 percent in first quarter of 2015, according to the Census Bureau.
Mortgage lenders "look at all debt obligations, and student debt would count toward that, which means the person...has to downgrade their housing expectations, and take out a loan lower than what they intended. Or in some cases, they say, 'Well, I'm going to hold back,'" said Lawrence Yun, chief economist of the National Association of Realtors.
The association found in a recent survey that 23 percent of first-time buyers said it was hard for them to save for a down payment, and within that group, 57 percent said student debt was impeding their saving, up from 54 percent a year earlier.
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While a college education generally leads to higher income, "growing student loan burdens can have direct impacts in terms of lost sales due to higher debt levels for builders focusing on the entry level market space," said Robert Dietz, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders.
Twenty-somethings are also putting off starting a family. The median age for a first birth has been increasing for years, standing most recently at age 26. And the birth rate among women aged 20 to 29 is now at a record low, and has been declining since at least 2008, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.
Students laboring under the burden of student debt are also following different career paths, with important social implications. The need to repay loans is steering some away from professions like social work and health care and toward higher-paying jobs in tech and financial services.
In a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, the writers examined the effect of a move by a selective college to replace loans with grants. "We find that debt causes graduates to choose substantially higher-salary jobs and reduces the probability that students choose relatively low-paying 'public interest' jobs," the researchers observed.
While choosing a higher-paying field may help them repay their loans faster, it could also result in fewer graduates moving into low-paying but critical jobs like early childhood education.
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Research has also found that the burden of student debt hinders innovation and entrepreneurship, a core component of the economic prowess of the United States. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania State studied the relationship between student debt and small business formation and found "a significant and economically meaningful" link: more student debt led to fewer small businesses being formed.
Student loan defaults are another burden on society. The three-year default rate stands at roughly 13.7, and the average amount in default per borrower was just over $14,000 in the third quarter of 2014. Debt like that impedes the ability of borrowers to save for retirement at a time when millions of Americans are short on retirement savings. And it can have a ripple effect on the economy, in part because the federal government typically does not recoup the full amount in default (though it does get most, eventually).
"We're not going to see this create systemic risk," said Rohit Chopra, student loan ombudsman and assistant director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, since the government either guarantees or owns most of the student loans and has the power to sue and to garnish wages, tax refunds, and federal benefits like Social Security when borrowers default. "But it will create economic drag if it's unaddressed,"he added.
While some, like Mark Kantrowitz, a student financial aid policy expert and publisher of Edvisors.com, argue that student loans have not reached the level of "crisis," most policymakers and experts agree that the trends are worrisome at the least and more should be done to ease the burden on borrowers.
Kantrowitz advocates for more programs to improve the financial literacy and budgeting skills of students and their parents, as well as better disclosures for student loans. "We need to bring some sanity back to the system," he said.