Personal Finance

Student loan debt is a hurdle for many would-be mothers

Key Points
  • Outstanding student loan debt now stands at a record $1.5 trillion.
  • For women in particular, that burden is having an impact on their decisions about marriage and motherhood.
Michelle Fernie-Oley and her husband, John's first dance as husband and wife.
Source: Mikkel Paige

Because of her student loans, Michelle Fernie-Oley has put off children — for now.

Fernie-Oley, 33, and her 34-year-old husband, John, have been married for two years and live in New York.

She is a wedding planner and owns her own business. He is a stagehand. Together they make more than six figures but Fernie-Oley is also paying back a loan tab that's just under $80,000.

"We discuss kids constantly," she said, but "I can't imagine having a child when I have to pay over $600 per month just to my student loans."

"It's crippling," she said.

Student debt in America has skyrocketed in recent years and now stands at a record $1.5 trillion. It is a burden that is not shared equally.

Largely because women outnumber men in college these days and are more likely to pursue a graduate degree, they are the ones who end up with the bigger loan balances.

In fact, 42 percent of women have more than $30,000 in college debt, compared with 27 percent of men. Women also are two times more likely than men to think it will take more than 20 years to pay off their loans, according to market research firm ORC International.

Women also earn less over their lifetimes.

While there are many factors that contribute to a decision to postpone children, including changing attitudes about age and motherhood, access to birth control and increased opportunities in the workforce, student loans are increasingly to blame.

In a March poll by Future Family, a start-up that helps women understand fertility, 44 percent of women said they had student debt. Half of those women said the loans affect their decision about having children. Future Family polled nearly 1,000 women in the U.S. who were ages 25 to 40 and didn't have children.

"We find that concerns about finances — and student debt specifically — are factoring in more," said Claire Tomkins, Future Family's CEO. "It ends up being a financial equation that's a little untenable."

How to deal with college debt
How to deal with college debt

For millennial women like Fernie-Oley, that equation may very well shape the rest of their lives.

Statistics show millennials are getting married later: The median marrying age is now 27 for women and 29 for men, up from 20 for women and 23 for men in 1960, according to the Pew Research Center.

They are having children later: For the first time ever, women in their 30s are having more children than those in their 20s, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And they are having fewer children altogether: Women are having an average of 1.8 kids today, down from 3.7 in 1960, according to the Census Bureau.

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