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Arnold School of Public Health

Researchers examine which groups of parents take on educational debt for their children and how much

January 5, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, 

Health Promotion, Education, and Behavior (HPEB) Associate Professor Katrina Walsemann has published research in the Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, identifying characteristics of parents with child-related education debt among late baby boomers. Working with co-author Jennifer A. Ailshire (University of Southern California), Walsemann analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of individuals born between 1957 and 1964.

Restricting the sample to include parents who had at least one child 17 years of age or older and answered questions about educational debt during midlife (i.e., ages 45-55 for most of the participants), the researchers looked at data from more than 6,500 individuals between 2004 and 2012. They found that black parents and parents with more education, higher income, and higher net worth were more likely to report child-related educational debt than white parents and parents with no degree, low-income, or negative net worth. They also found that among those who carried debt, high-income parents had more debt than low-income parents. 

Their study revealed that almost 13 percent of midlife parents are taking on student debt to pay for their children’s education. Among those who take on debt, the average balance is about $21,000. Findings from other studies suggest that midlife and older adults have around $400 billion in educational debt—with approximately 25 percent of those loans borrowed to pay for children’s college expenses.   

“Student debt isn’t just a concern for students, but it is also a concern for parents,” says Walsemann. “Though some parents may not be adversely affected by taking on student debt at midlife, other parents may be making trade-offs between saving for retirement and paying for their children’s college through student loans. This is concerning because 50 percent of midlife adults have only saved $12,000 or less for retirement; diverting these funds from savings for retirement may increase financial hardship in older adulthood. This has potential implications for health if it constrains older adults’ ability to pay for medicine, see a doctor, purchase food, or interact with friends.”

Because little is known about how parents financially help their children pay for college, Walsemann and Ailshire think that it is important that social scientists collect additional data in order to examine how borrowing to pay for children’s college impacts midlife and older adults’ financial and social wellbeing. The authors also recommend researchers, policymakers, and university administrators consider how rising tuition costs are shifting the financial burden of paying for college from students to parents.

Walsemann has been researching student loan debt for several years now. She’s explored its effects on health factors, such as mental health and sleep problems. After a call by a parent to a radio show on which Walsemann was being interviewed, she has expanded her research in this area again.

“I was being interviewed by the Kathleen Dunn Show on Wisconsin Public Radio about my research on the implications of student debt for students’ mental health and wellbeing when a father called in to the show and told me his story,” she says. “Basically, he wanted to ensure that his kids were able to graduate from college debt free, so he took out a HELOC on his house to pay for his kids’ college tuition. Then the Great Recession hit and he almost lost his home. It hit me that I was thinking too narrowly about who is being affected by student debt and the rising cost of tuition. And also, that parents are often intimately involved in the decisions about who will pay for college.”  


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