Joy and her husband just welcomed a niece. The arrival of the child, born to Joy’s 33-year-old sister-in-law, reminded the couple how much they want kids of their own. The couple, who met in college and live in eastern Michigan, always hoped for two or three kids, and their new niece—“She is just so cute!” Joy gushed—has put it front of mind: “Now I really want one.” But one major barrier standing between them and the family they’d imagined is $60,000 in combined student loan debt. With minimum monthly loan payments of $800, they can’t fathom how they’d afford the cost of childbirth, let alone years of childcare. “It’s just not financially feasible,” she said.
Joy, who’s 26 and asked to go by only her first name for privacy reasons, was meticulous about planning her education to ensure she got a job right out of college without too much debt. Her parents had saved up a $24,000 nest egg. She and her father had built spreadsheets to map out the costs. But “stupid hidden fees” and the additional 30 credits she needed to become a certified public accountant threw a wrench in her plans. The couple had $74,000 in debt when they graduated, and slightly more than half was hers.
After graduation, she and her husband both landed steady work in their fields (her husband is a nurse). Together, they earned over $100,000 annually. They’ve both received raises in the intervening years, but that extra income went toward paying down $15,000 in debt. They routed most of their discretionary spending money every month—about $500 after bills and loan payments—toward paying down their balance too.
Joy and her husband are among the 43 million borrowers eligible for $10,000 or $20,000 in federal student loan forgiveness under a one-time plan proposed by President Joe Biden that will cost about $400 billion over 30 years. Whether the couple and their peers get any relief is up in the air. Six Republican-led states have sought to strike down Biden’s plan, claiming it will harm future tax revenue, as have two individual borrowers, who claim they were improperly denied the opportunity to comment on the plan. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in both cases on Feb. 28, with a decision expected at the end of June.
Even if the justices uphold the plan, many of the most indebted millennials will see their debt load decrease by only a small fraction. But for others, that forgiveness could make the difference between being able to consider starting a family and not. Regardless, the fact that so many young adults see the choice between finances and family in such stark terms underscores just how large and debilitating the nation’s student loan burden has become.
This is the first time in history that student debt has been so widespread and so significant, said Michael Nau, a researcher at Ohio State University who has studied the demographic effects of student loans. “It’s almost like a social experiment to see, well, how will that have ramifications for other parts of life?”
Relief under the Biden plan would be “life-changing” for Joy and her husband, shrinking their minimum monthly payment from $800 to $250. “If that happens, we can start to save for a family and home,” she said. If not, their combined salaries are simply “not enough to raise a kid.”
About two-thirds of college-degree holders in their late thirties have borrowed money for their educations, with the average U.S. millennial holding over $40,000 in debt. Students from Black and Latino families are even more likely to borrow for college, owing to longstanding racial wealth gaps. Debt burdens eat into borrowers’ discretionary spending on items like meals, travel, and consumer goods. Repayment obligations force borrowers to put off larger purchases, too, like their first home. But student loans are also altering people’s lives in more intimate ways, by hindering their ability to date, marry, or become parents.
Millennials are waiting longer to have kids, a fact that is often framed as a choice. But many young people saddled with significant student loans don’t feel that children are an option for them, as long as debt hangs around their necks, siphoning money away from expenses like childcare and leaving even those with above-average incomes feeling precarious and unable to plan for the future. One 2015 study estimates that women with $60,000 in student debt were 42% less likely to have children than their non-indebted peers, after controlling for education, class background, and demographic indicators. Women hold about two-thirds of student loan debt, according to the American Association of University Women.
Borrowers’ hesitancy to start families is contributing to a falloff in births in the U.S., where fertility rates have hit their lowest level in half a century. A declining birth rate can cause an aging population, a smaller workforce and tax base, and the risk of unfunded pension liabilities. In that sense, the burden of student debt isn’t just dashing the dreams of some hopeful parents—it’s a macroeconomic shock that could be felt for generations.
U.S. student loans skyrocket; birth rate sinks
Sociologist Arielle Kuperberg, 40, began researching how student debt shapes young people’s transitions to adulthood when she saw how crippling loan burdens compelled friends of hers to make difficult choices in their personal lives. One retreated to his mother’s basement after college to save on rent and pay back his loans, which made it hard for him to date throughout his twenties and thirties. Another friend with over $100,000 in student loan debt wants to have a child, but doesn’t think she can afford to.
Analyzing national loan data, Kuperberg and fellow sociologist Joan Maya Mazelis discovered these were not merely anecdotes. They found that among women born in the early 1980s with college degrees, 60% of women who had ever taken out student loans had children by age 40, compared to 67.5% who did not borrow. That 7.5-percentage-point gap is “huge in fertility terms,” said Kuperberg—amounting to some 715,000 women of prime reproductive age. “You’re looking at, is this generation replacing themselves or not?” Apparently not: In the U.S., the fertility rate hit 1.64 births per woman in 2020, its lowest level since the 1970s; that same year, the country’s cumulative student loan debt reached nearly $1.7 trillion. A survey by Kuperberg and Mazelis of nearly 3,000 undergraduates from two midsize public universities in the Northeast and Southeast, showed that 47% believed people shouldn’t have kids if they had outstanding loan debt.
American millennials are not alone in their collective hesitation to reproduce. About half the world’s population lives in countries with average fertility rates (the number of children a woman can expect to have in her lifetime) below 2.1, the replacement level to keep a population stable. But the U.S. is unique in how indebted its college graduates are, thanks to decades of defunding public higher education and rising tuition costs that have left families responsible for annual tuition bills that start in the five figures.
America is also unique among wealthy countries in its lack of national paid family leave and in how little state aid it offers families. This leaves individuals cobbling together savings to take time off after a birth or to begin shelling out for childcare.
Kuperberg and Mazelis think about this state of affairs in terms of tradeoffs. “It’s increasingly become an economic situation where you can have one thing, but not all the things,” Kuperberg said. “Family, economic security, a college degree, or not a lot of debt—you can only get one or two of those.”
Elliot Kindler, 34, is going with economic security for now. He graduated from Emory University in 2011 with a degree in religion and $40,000 in debt. In an economy still recovering from the financial crisis, the best job he could find was at Bank of America, which had acquired the mortgage lender Countrywide Financial. He lived at home, paying down his debt on a $37,000 salary, and processing foreclosures—“a pretty miserable three years of my life,” he recalls. Kindler saw a graduate degree as the only route “to basically make myself employable.” An MBA might saddle him with additional debt, but it would set him up to earn well for the long term. His bet paid off: An MBA at the University of Pittsburgh resulted in another $60,000 in debt but also landed him a job making $105,000 at Deloitte. He later moved to a corporate finance job with a cybersecurity firm in Northern Virginia that was acquired by Google. Now a Google employee, he makes upwards of $200,000, including equity and bonuses.
Along the way, he met his wife, a public school teacher whose roughly $85,000 in loans he learned about after they were married. Penny-pinching has brought their combined balance down to $78,000 from an original $185,000. Kindler is proud of himself for going from earning $37,000 a year to more than $200,000 ten years on. “But at the same time, those student loans haven’t gone away,” he said. Their remaining debt requires nearly a $2,000 monthly payment, which is more than the $1,600 a month that he estimates childcare costs in Northern Virginia.
The couple’s earnings in 2020 and 2021 qualify them for Biden’s loan forgiveness plan, and his wife, as a government employee, is eligible for a separate forgiveness plan for workers in the public or nonprofit sector. Those programs eventually will relieve them of about $45,000 in federal debt, “depending on political forces,” Kindler notes. He estimates they could pay off the remainder in three or four years. By then, they’ll both be 37 or 38, bringing them to “the choice of do you go for one, or zero children?” Hoping to sound positive, I brought up Google’s generous fertility benefits. Kindler is aware of them, but feels as if they’re designed to encourage people to work more and put off having kids until they’ll need medical help. (Similar critiques have been made by observers and by tech workers themselves since the mid-2010s, when Big Tech companies began offering egg freezing to employees.) “I don’t want to say it’s a bad thing. I think it’s great that they have those rewards. It’s just—you know, nothing’s ever completely altruistic.”
Kindler’s brother, a doctor, is two years younger and earns as much as he does. But because his brother works for a hospital system that is technically a nonprofit, he will soon be eligible for loan forgiveness. In January, his brother announced that he and his wife are expecting.
Borrowing more to earn more
Joy was lucky to land a good job with only her undergraduate degree. But like Kindler, many young people take on additional debt for an advanced degree to get farther in competitive fields. After “multiple jobs and multiple unemployments” in the nonprofit sector, Danny Navarro realized his only way to get ahead was to earn a master’s in public administration. One of the cheaper offerings in the D.C. area, at George Mason University, still necessitated $70,000 in loans. “The higher salaries required master’s degrees, but then it feels like a rat race trying to pay off these loans just to earn an extra $20,000,” says Navarro, 34, who still works in the nonprofit sector. “We now have to spend almost a quarter of our monthly income paying something back.”
Courtesy of Danny and Laurie Navarro
His wife, Laurie Navarro, who works in public affairs for the U.S. government, was the oldest of five children born to agricultural worker parents in rural Washington state. She always thought she’d have four kids of her own. But today, at 37, she’s no longer sure that’s realistic, even less so since she was diagnosed with unexplained infertility in 2020. A gigantic pile of student debt—her $70,000 and Danny’s more than $25,000—stands in the way.
Without debt, “we would be able to focus our money on adoption or IVF,” he says.
Natasha Quadlin, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied student loan debt, noted that women with student debt presumably attended university, and college-educated women already tend to have children at later ages. “If college-educated women further delay their fertility because of debt, they may face further fertility challenges and other pregnancy-related complications. In short, debt forgiveness may amount to removing an important barrier to fertility for some women,” Quadlin added.
Companies offer student loan relief
If the costs of student debt are causing young people to delay or forgo children, what solutions could address their concerns? Biden’s forgiveness plan would certainly help many people feel more comfortable moving ahead with their family plans—about two-thirds of older millennials have student debt loads of $20,000 or less, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
“Having children in the U.S. is enormously expensive, and any disposable income freed up through debt forgiveness can be redirected toward investments in the future generation,” Quadlin said.
But for borrowers with hefty balances, that might not be enough to make a difference. Plus, the political and legal uncertainty surrounding policy initiatives that might help families makes it hard to grasp one’s future finances, said Suzanne Kahn, managing director of research and policy at the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank. Student loan forgiveness and an expanded child tax credit are “incredibly welcome and badly needed support for folks trying to start a family,” but, she added, “You need to be able to assume they will stay in place. So it just strikes me as really tragic that between the Supreme Court and Congress, that’s really difficult to do for a whole range of policies.”
Over the past two decades, various states have enacted paid family plans, and at the federal level, the recently introduced Child Care for Every Community Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) and Reps. Mikie Sherrill (D–N.J.) and Sara Jacobs (D–Calif.), would cap childcare costs at 7% of total income for high-earning families, while half of American families would pay $10 a day or less for care.
Corporations are aware of workers’ desires to have families. Tech firms began offering egg-freezing benefits in 2014, and today 54% of large companies cover in vitro fertilization, according to a 2022 survey of employer health plans by the management consulting firm Mercer. But help covering the recurring cost of childcare, which ranges from $5,436 a year for infant care in Mississippi to $24,243 in Washington, D.C., is less common. One rare exception is outdoor apparel company Patagonia, which has provided on-site childcare at its headquarters since 1983.
Other companies have started to take their workers’ student loans seriously. Google announced a $2,500 annual loan repayment benefit in 2020; PwC offers up to $10,000 in total repayment assistance. Such benefits help companies attract talent. A Mercer survey of more than 4,000 workers conducted in 2022 found that employer matching for paying down student debt was the second most popular defined contribution plan benefit they’d like their company to offer, behind an increase in employer matching for retirement. For workers under 45, it was the top choice.
‘Loving what you do’—or reducing loans?
Rachel Blomquist would love to work for a company that assisted its workers with student loans or childcare costs. “That would have a huge impact on my decision to where I would go,” she said. The 34-year-old, who works as a user experience designer at an education technology firm, holds $177,400 in student debt: around $20,000 for an undergrad in anthropology from Creighton University and over $148,000 for a master’s in East Asian studies at Georgetown University, plus about $10,000 in interest.
Courtesy of Rachel Blomquist
I asked whether she had grasped the magnitude of the loans she was taking out for her master’s degree. At the time, she was hoping to go into nonprofit work in international development, and qualify for public service loan forgiveness after 10 years. “I just—I glazed over the numbers, because I can’t process that,” she said. She had also become accustomed to thinking of her loan obligations in terms of a percentage of her monthly pay, not in their entirety. “In my mind I can say, ‘Oh, well, I’ll just pay 10% of my income for the next 25 years. I can do that.”
It wasn’t until she got married in 2020 that her month-to-month approach became untenable. Her monthly minimum payment soon will jump from $300 to $900 based on her and her husband’s combined income. She and her husband would like to eventually have at least one kid—maybe two—and now she finally feels psychologically ready. But, she said, “I still don’t feel financially ready because of the student loans…where I am personally, financially is very precarious, even having one child. Definitely, I do not think I’ll be able to afford two kids.”
Having $20,000 forgiven through the Biden plan would bring her balance down to $150,000—“a nice, clean number,” she says—and one that she is now trying to think about more holistically, as something to tackle in its entirety. “I actually have been thinking more about, How can I pay it off? How can I just get rid of this debt?” she said. “But there’s no mechanism in existence that would actually allow me to pay it off.” If they do have kids, she wonders what she would tell them about student loans. “I would want to raise my kid in a similar way that I was raised—to do what you love,” she said. “But my student loans tell me not to do what I love.”
This story was produced with the support of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.