Researcher Earns NSF Grant to Examine Impact of Student Loans on Lives of College Graduates

By Tom McLaughlin

Prior to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the growth of student loan debt was already one of the most pressing financial issues of our time.

The researchers explain that more than two-thirds of college graduates have an average of $30,000 in student debt.

While much of the discussion – and corresponding research – has focused on the experiences of students with loans while they are in college, new Rutgers University–Camden research funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) is examining the variations in impacts of student loans on the lives of college graduates.

Our collaborative project, ‘A New Class Divide: Student Loans and the Transition to Adulthood,’ will allow us to expand our prior study in new ways, looking in particular at the Bridging the Gap program which aims to reduce the need for student loans among Rutgers University–Camden students,” says Joan Maya Mazelis, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers–Camden, who is conducting the study with Arielle Kuperberg, an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “Given the potential impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on college students and graduates in the coming months and years, issues of debt and inequality will be more important than ever to investigate.”

The researchers explain that more than two-thirds of college graduates have an average of $30,000 in student debt. Student debt levels rose 25 percent between 2008 and 2014, driven by state governments’ declining investments in higher education. Rising tuition and living costs nationwide require the majority of students to rely on loans, in the hopes of increasing their future earnings enough to pay off their debt. Some universities, including Rutgers–Camden, have implemented tuition-reduction programs to reduce loans for students.

Mazelis says that the NSF-funded project will examine Bridging the Gap, an innovative program which aims to reduce the need for student loans among Rutgers–Camden students.

The scholars also note that preliminary research shows persistent class differences for students seeking loans, with this group disproportionately comprised of Black students and women. This stratification in educational and post-college experience due to student loan obligations may undermine public universities’ missions to provide pathways to upward mobility.

In spring 2016, Mazelis and Kuperberg interviewed graduating seniors with loans at their respective public universities – Rutgers University–Camden and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro – and have followed up with them multiple times since graduation to determine the impact of student loan debt on their educational and post-college experiences. They also surveyed undergraduates at both institutions in 2017 and, in 2018, they did a follow-up survey with those who graduated.

Among their findings, the researchers discovered that, across the board, students believe the benefits of loans to complete college will one day outweigh the costs.

Funded by the NSF grant, a new phase of the project will further examine how loans play a role in the transition to adulthood among college graduates, how people with loans vary in this transition, and what accounts for these variations. By including groups of students with loans and without, the study will also assess who takes out student loans and why, as well as who avoids them and how.

Furthermore, the researchers will examine how student loans are linked to various aspects of social class, how class background and other factors influence the experiences of those graduating with loans, and how loans may represent a new kind of inequality.

This new phase will include additional interviews in 2020 and 2021 with the college graduates with loans who were interviewed just prior to graduation in 2016 and have been interviewed annually since that time, as well as another follow-up survey with the graduating seniors who were first surveyed in 2017.

In addition, Mazelis and Kuperberg will conduct a new survey, and will survey graduates again a year later, exploring the experiences of both those with loans and those without. Finally, a new cohort of graduating Rutgers University–Camden seniors will be interviewed prior to graduation and 1.5 years after graduation to determine the impact of Bridging the Gap on the post-college launch for graduates who do and graduates who do not have student loans. According to the researchers, the study will determine how such a policy aimed at reducing loans may not only ease the burden on current students, but ultimately benefit graduates’ abilities to transition to post-college lives.

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