The Center for American Progress calls on Congress to do something about student loan debt or risk a slowdown in the housing sector and consumer purchases in the future. As debt burdens rise for young families (and their parents in many cases), they may put off buying homes, forming their own households (and further delay marriage), and even impinge on their retirement.
As the Center notes, student debt is rising rapidly–and it’s not just young adults.
According to the 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances, 45 percent of all American families hold outstanding student-loan debt, up from 33 percent in 2007. While the majority of student debt is held by borrowers under the age of 35, the rise in student debt also affects older Americans. Thirty-six percent of families in a household headed by someone ages 45 to 54, 29 percent of families in a household headed by someone ages 55 to 64, and 13.3 percent of families in which the head of household is between the ages of 65 and 74 hold student debt.
Not only the number of people with debt, but the amounts are not insignificant. As Chris Herbert, research director at the Harvard Center for Housing writes, “the total value of outstanding student loans nearly quadrupled between the start of 2003 and the third quarter of 2012, from $241 billion to just under $1 trillion.”
Student-loan delinquencies and defaults have likewise risen. Banks wrote off $3 billion in student-loan debts during January and February of this year alone, a 36% increase, according to Reuters. And “about 17 percent of the nearly 40 million student loan borrowers [were] at least 90 days past due on their repayments, a February report from the New York Federal Reserve Bank showed.” The tough economy is the main reason for the spike.
The result of this increasing debt burden, the Center for American Progress argues, is a slower launch into adulthood, including starting families and buying homes. The number of young people living with their parents has been on the rise since 2010 and the beginning of the Great Recession. When they’re living at home, they’re not out spending on their own housing and set-up, which contributes, according to Moody’s Analytics estimates, $145,000 of economic activity.
Moreover, the delay in household formation and the financial challenges for adults in their twenties and thirties may alter the future of the U.S. housing market. The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates that Echo Boomers—those born between 1981 and 1995—will drive 75 percent to 80 percent of owner-occupied home acquisition before 2020, when Baby Boomers begin to sell off their homes. Yet homeownership rates for young people are among the lowest in decades.
Not to mention it’s simply harder to get a mortgage today for those with little credit history, although that seems to be easing.
One point that very few have raised is the long-term effect on retirement security. The Boomers are already behind the curve when it comes to saving for retirement, and despite Suze Orman’s pleas otherwise, they’ve often put aside their own retirement savings to help out with their children’s college loans. On top of that, as the Center reports,
“according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, 62 percent of workers ages 30 to 39 are projected to have insufficient resources in retirement”–a far higher number than even for Boomers. It’s hard to save for retirement when you have a student loan bill every month.”
That said, the median student loan bill is still quite reasonable at $11,000, and the cost of not having a degree is even higher. But there are indeed young adults with extremely high debts. As Herbert at the Housing Research Center notes, “Among those under 30, the share of borrowers with outstanding debt exceeding $50,000 increased from 5 percent of borrowers to 10 percent, and for those 30-39 this share jumped from 14 to 19 percent.” Ultimately, then, the debt is concentrated in a smallish number of households. It seems that if policies to alleviate the burden are put in place, they should be targeted in some way– and in such a way as to not encourage people to take out high debt because they know there’s a write-off down the road.
One point that has been raised lately and that may continue to be a problem as young adults delay their path into adulthood is the number of households with mortgages at retirement. Advisers have long argued that the mortgage should be paid off by then. But Boomers are bucking that trend already, and it seems that it might only grown as young people delay the start of their careers while they gain more education (and debt), and push buying a home down the road even farther.
In the end, it’s a “wait and see” about the effect on homeownership among the Echo Boom and Millennial generations. As Herbert says:
“Overall, while the rise in student loan debt is certainly a cause for concern, it may not be as significant a drag on the ability of young adults to move into homeownership as many fear, since the typical borrower has not seen a significant jump in the amount of debt incurred and seems to have a manageable monthly payment. On the other hand, with much of the increase in student debt among both those age 30-39 and even older households there may be more need for concern about the impact of these loans on the ability of existing homeowners to balance their household budgets and save for retirement.”
The Center for American Progress recommends the following to better manage student debt going forward:
- Develop a well-designed refinancing program for student-loan borrowers.
- Promote broader access to income-based repayment programs, which offer affordable payment schedules that correspond to the borrower’s income.
- Consider including private student loans under bankruptcy protection.
- Require school certification for private student loans.
- Encourage broader adoption of the college scorecard by postsecondary-education institutions.