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Student Loan Debt is Not Just an Economic Problem, It’s a Marriage Problem

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College-Fund-by-Tax-CreditsSenator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a potential 2016 presidential candidate, recently argued that Congress should hike taxes on families and small businesses making more than $1 million, then use the tax revenue to let debt-ridden students refinance their college loans.

As a progressive redistribution scheme it’s rather ingenious: It allows the government to take money from private individuals and businesses and give it to other businesses (i.e., college and universities), all while giving the impression of helping another group of private individuals (i.e., students who take indebt themselves by taking out college loans). Warren’s proposal is an brilliant blend of cronyism, special interest pandering, and “soak the rich” class envy – which is why it has a high likelihood of becoming law.

But if we look past the proposal we discovers something else that is fueling the student loan debt “crisis.” Whenever a nanny state solution like this is proposed, we should ask why the government is needed to serve as a governess. In this case, it appears the government is being asked to be a surrogate parent because of the failings of actual parents.

According to a study by sociologists at Rice University, college students whose parents are not married to each other face significantly heavier financial burdens for the simple reason that married parents, relative to other parents, contribute significantly more to their children’s college education:

Married parents not only contributed more in absolute terms to their children’s education than divorced parents ($4,700 median amount per year vs. $1,500 per year; p<.001) but also gave a larger proportion of their income to their children’s education (8 percent vs. 6 percent, p<.05). Married parents also outscored remarried parents in absolute ($4,700 per year vs. $2,490; p<.001) and proportional terms (8 percent of income vs. 5 percent; p<.001). Moreover, married parents covered a significantly greater proportion of their children’s financial needs, as defined by the cost of the college in which they are enrolled minus aid. Even as children of divorced and remarried parents were found to have significantly lower levels of financial need, married parents nonetheless covered 77 percent of the financial need of their children, whereas divorced parents covered just 42 percent of the financial need of their children (p<.001) and remarried parents 53 percent (p<.05). Using ordinary least-square regressions to predict parental contributions, the researchers found that parental marital status even trumped parental education and income as the determining factor.

The study notes that divorced and remarried parents who make $70,000 a year are predicted to contribute less toward their children’s college expenses than married parents who make only $40,000 per year. Is it really surprising, then, that when parents won’t contribute to the own children’s education that the students turn to Uncle Sam for help?

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


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  • Didit

    This is such a ridiculously convoluted argument on so many levels. There are so many factors going into a person’s decision to contribute to a child’s college education. Concluding that higher income earners ‘won’t’ contribute more without considering these other factors, stating it the way you do, makes it seem as if these parents want to laden their children with student debt and cripple their futures because they know there will be some handout down the road. Tuition is inflated beyond reason, culturally we still buy that college-education is the answer, our student loan scheme is corrupt and enslaves borrowers and people borrow without fully understanding the consequences of their loan which is why we are in a student loan bubble….especially after discharging in bankruptcy was taken off the table. Pushing it back on the parents as not wanting to contribute more fails to address their loss of pensions, social security instability, long term health care costs, precarious retirements and the axiom – there are no scholarships for retirement. It is cheaper for a student to take a student loan (approximately 100-150,000) then it is to take care of a parent who didn’t provide for their future (350,00 – 400,000). You do the math. The system needs to be reformed. Don’t blame the parents who don’t buy into ‘sacrifice your retirement so your child can be debt-free’ argument’. The worst gift you can give your child is making them financially obligated to care for you in your old age because you paid for their diploma. Cheaper for them to take responsible student loans. Reform the system from top to bottom.

  • truth

    End the practice all student loan debt, make college free to all citizens and then charge a higher income tax rate to those who take advantage of college, and a higher rate for those who do masters and doctorate degrees. All of society will then prosper because the punitive aspect of paying for college is removed and the bill is actually paid instead of deferred and eventually discharged.

  • BlackiesCrazy

    Restore basic consumer protections to student loans now! Support HR 3892!!

  • Daniel

    I think our collective debt can be solved if every individual (i.e the collective together) simply learns how to live within their means. I teach you how to do it for free:

  • Mike

    Hi everyone, check out what Matt & Mike Foundation is looking to do
    to help college graduates once they reach their target goal! Lets all
    work together to get this great cause up and running.

  • Jerry

    Student loan debt is the number 1 debt in North America. Some Students have found a solution! Check out this website and see how!