A research project investigating financial, workforce, and geospatial behavior of young adults with student debt

Millennial Student Debt


The Millennial Student Debt study aims to present a country-wide analysis and visualization of student debt and its relationship with demographic characteristics, school characteristics and labor market characteristics, and how these relationships have changed over the past decade.

The project name refers to the key focus of our study–student debt, in its many forms, sizes and payment schemes–but we are especially interested in the decisions leading up to and following debt take-up. These decisions include, for example, things that affect a person’s student debt load, like demographic characteristics, location, degree pursued, school attended; we also examine how this particular type of debt shapes individuals’ repayment behavior on other debt types, status and mobility in the labor market (such as those statistics from ADP’s Workforce Vitality Report), and social decisions like when to marry and where to live.

Additional research on the effects of institutional concentration on net tuition costs, as well as the relationship between federal/state funding and workforce trends, complement and contextualize our research on student debt. The research and findings are particularly relevant during this election season as student debt is featured prominently as a major policy issue.

Project leads: Laura Beamer, Marshall Steinbaum, Francis Tseng, and Eduard Nilaj.

Contact us about this project:

Part 1

Unequal and Uneven: The Geography of Higher Education Access

In much of the existing higher education literature, “college access” is understood in terms of pre-college educational attainment, social and informational networks, and financial capacity, both for tuition and living expenses. The US ranks highly on initial college access by comparison with other countries, but this access—along with all major metrics of college success, including completion rates, default rates, and debt-to-income ratios—exhibits drastic inequality along familiar lines of race, gender, class, and geography.

View the full post on the Phenomenal World here.

View the interactive map here.

View the press release here.

Part 2

Declining Access, Rising Cost: The Geography of Higher Education Post-2008

During and after the Great Recession, public funding for higher education was slashed as state budgets imposed austerity measures. Staff and programs were cut and tuition rose; in many states, even by 2018, funding had not returned to pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, enrollment soared. As students locked out of a slack labor market were told they lacked the skills necessary for today’s jobs, the solution to unemployment and wage stagnation was to be found in the pursuit of more degrees at higher prices. The result was the acceleration of what is now a four or five-decade trend in US higher education: the replacement of a public good model with a private consumer model, dependent on tuition financed with federal debt, all justified on the back of supposed earnings increases that fail to materialize.

View the full post on the Phenomenal World here.

View the interactive map here.

View our news writeup with key takeaways here.

Part 3

Unceasing Debt, Disparate Burdens: Student Debt and Young America

Since the Great Recession, outstanding student loan debt in the United States has increased by 122% in 2019 dollars, reaching the staggering sum of $1.66 trillion in June of this year. Student loan debt has grown faster than other debt types, including auto, credit card and mortgage debt. For many, education is the only pathway towards good employment with benefits, leading to economic and social opportunities later in life. But as college becomes more unaffordable with each passing year, student loans are bridging the ever-expanding chasm between college savings and obtaining an education. The crisis has reached the national political arena, with policymakers recently calling for debt cancellation up to $50,000 for federal borrowers.

View the full post on the Phenomenal World here.

View the interactive map here.

View the press release here.

Part 3.5

Congressional Overlay

Immediately following the September 2020 release of Part 3, “Unceasing Debt, Disparate Burdens: Student Debt and Young America,” the research team published an interactive map of congressional-level student debt trends from 2009 to 2019. With the approach of the 2020 election, the tool allows advocates, policymakers, and constituents to track student debt burdens, education costs, income, and geographic access at the district level.

View the interactive map here. Click the toggle at top right to view the congressional overlay.

View the press release here.

JFI joined the Higher Ed Not Debt coalition to add our research to a broader set of organizations investigating and advocating around rising student debt levels nationwide. In a “#CancelStudentDebt Week of Action” in late September, Higher Ed Not Debt organizations utilized fact sheets featuring JFI’s recently-released data mapping student debt levels nationwide. View the fact sheets here.

Part 4

The Student Debt Crisis Is a Crisis of (Non-)Repayment

Over the last ten years, as outstanding student loan debt has mounted and been assumed by a more diverse, less affluent group of students and their families than was the case for prior cohorts, a common policy response has been to wave away its impact on wealth, both individually and in aggregate, by saying that the debt finances its own repayment. First of all, so the claim goes, student debt finances college degrees that in turn pay off in the form of higher earnings, enabling debtors to repay. Second, expanded allowance for income-driven repayment (IDR), by capping debt service as a share of disposable income, eliminates the worst forms of delinquency and default. The first claim says that repayment is inevitable, the second that it need not take place. Both claims together, however, serve to rationalize higher debt, higher tuition, higher attainment, and the forces driving all three.

View the full post, by JFI senior fellow Marshall Steinbaum, on the Phenomenal World here.

View the press release here.

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