Collaborative Research: A New Class Divide: Student Loans and the Transition to Adulthood

Project Details


The majority of young adults now attend at least some college, and many take on substantial student debt in the process. More than two-thirds of college graduates now carry an average of around $30,000 in student debt when they finish their 4-year degrees. Recently, some experts and stakeholders have discussed various plans to reduce or forgive student loans, and some colleges have begun to implement programs to reduce loans for low-income students. This project examines college students' and graduates' experiences with debt. It examines how students with loans came to take on debt, examining prior experiences with parents, advisors, and peers. It examines student attitudes towards and knowledge about debt, as well as their experiences after college as they begin to pay off that debt. The project also compares their experiences to those who attended a university that implemented a new program to reduce or eliminate student debt, comparing the experiences of those with student loan debt to those who avoided debt either because of this program or without this program. Findings from the project will inform policies in higher education that aim to reduce student loan indebtedness, and provide input for families and political leaders concerned with the implications of student debt for young adults, their families and for United States society generally.

Student loan debt has implications for students, their families and United States society more generally. Building upon an ongoing longitudinal mixed-methods study, this project will involve conducting interviews with 24 college graduates with loans at two universities who were first interviewed right before their graduation in 2016, and have been interviewed yearly since then. The project will interview this cohort in both 2020 and 2021. A new cohort of 48 seniors graduating in 2020 will be interviewed at a university that implemented a program to reduce student loans, with interviews right before and 1.5 years after graduation. The ongoing project also included surveys with 3,727 college students at two universities in 2017, as well as 173 graduating seniors from that survey again in 2018. Those graduating seniors will again be surveyed in 2020. A new survey will be fielded at the university with the student loans program in 2020, with graduates of that university surveyed again in Fall 2021. Instrumental variable regression analyses will be combined with interview data to analyze selection into student loan debt, the different educational experiences of those with and without debt, and sentiments and knowledge about loan debt that may affect events later in young adulthood, including post-graduate experiences and outcomes. This project will help determine the impacts of student loan debt on the transition out of college and into young adulthood, and how student loan debt may represent a new 'class divide' among college graduates that produces differential outcomes later in the life course based on student loan debt status. Findings will inform sociological theories of education, family formation, and transition to adulthood.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date10/1/173/31/23


  • National Science Foundation: $158,758.00


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