During the height of the pandemic, workers with college degrees were spared some of the harshest consequences. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that workers with a bachelor's degree are less likely to be unemployed and earn 67% more than those with just a high school degree. Plus, college graduates live longer than those without a college degree.
While student loans can be crucial in helping Americans access these benefits, economists say that student debt is holding the economy back.
Approximately 45 million Americans collectively owe $1.7 trillion in student debt. And even though federal student loan payments have been paused since March 27, 2020, the student loan crisis is still looming. The moratorium is set to expire Oct. 1, 2021 and politicians and experts warn that millions of borrowers may be thrown into "extraordinary financial hardship" when payments resume.
CNBC Make It spoke with Nela Richardson, chief economist of human resource management firm ADP, about three of the biggest ways student debt impacts the economy.
Richardson stresses that student debt is a concern because of the way it disproportionately impacts young people today more than in previous generations.
Decades of cuts to education funding means that students pay much higher college costs than previous generations did. Over the past 10 years, college costs increased by more than 16% and student debt totals increased by 99%. Today, not only do roughly 70% of college students take out loans to pay for their education, but they take out larger volumes.
Plus, recent college graduates have entered the workforce during one of the most hostile labor markets in history for young workers. According to an analysis of BLS data by Pew Research Center, 2020 college graduates saw a bigger decrease in labor force participation than those who graduated during the Great Recession.
"Student debt falls heavily on the shoulders of young people. They have the lowest incomes and are most likely to have recently finished college," says Richardson. "We know from our data that young people were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. They were more likely to report a job loss, a reduction in job responsibilities or a pay cut. When you add that to student debt, that creates quite a sizable hurdle."
The result is growing generational inequality that will have significant long-term consequences, she warns: "It's about macro growth. We should care [about student debt] because it does affect the future of GDP growth when there's a lack of investment among young people."
Federal Reserve data indicates that millennials control just 5% of U.S. wealth while baby boomers control over 52%. In 1989, when baby boomers were around the same age as millennials are today, they controlled 21% of the country's wealth.
Student debt impacts borrowers over time by raising debt burdens, lowering credit scores and ultimately, limiting the purchasing power of those with student debt. Because young people are disproportionately burdened by student debt, they will be less able to participate in — and help grow — the economy in the long run.
"What you want is widespread opportunity for investment over time. That's what's good for the economy. That's what's good for Wall Street," says Richardson. "If you don't have that, then you're looking at slower growth from the prime-aged working population — and that's problematic."
The Federal Reserve estimates that student debt shaves roughly 0.05% off GDP per year. While the current impact may appear relatively small, as borrowers struggle to buy homes, save for retirement and invest in the stock market, the impact may become more significant.
"All those assets that the boomers have been accumulating to feed the economy, who's going to buy those assets? Who's going to take over to make sure that the stock and asset markets keep going up?" asks Richardson. "Maybe boomers can leave those through inheritance to their children, but that just concentrates wealth, which gets back to the issue of inequality."
Finally, there is the concern that many borrowers are expected to default on their student loans.
Currently, about $158.5 billion worth of federally managed student loans are considered in default — and this total may increase once the pause on federal student loan payments expires. Brookings estimates that by 2023, nearly 40% of borrowers are expected to default on their student loans.
"If you have delinquencies, that lowers credit scores, and that's problematic in terms of doing anything in the economy from getting a credit card to getting a mortgage," says Richardson, citing ADP data that suggests student loans account for 35% of severely derogatory loan balances, more than three times the delinquency rate of mortgages.
Richardson fears that because of student loan difficulties, borrowers will be held back from generating wealth through means such as buying a home or starting a business. "When you think about how the middle class builds wealth over time, there's two ways in the U.S.: homeownership and entrepreneurship," she says.
While consumer spending appears to be stable for now, Richardson stresses that the student debt crisis should be addressed in order to maintain economic growth.
"If you're very focused on the here and now and the present economic recovery, you can shrug off consumer debt," she says. "But if you care about the future, and you think about what leads to feature growth and investment, then student debt is one thing that can block that."