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One Surprising Race Gap That Still Dogs Millennials

January 7, 2017, 5:44 PM UTC
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Young adults are more likely to live with their parents now than at any time in the past 75 years. And there’s a popular narrative that puts much of the blame on the record levels of student debt that millennials carry.

But not so fast.

A new study published in Sociology of Education slaps down any correlation between high student debt levels and the likelihood that a young adult will wind up living back home with mom and dad — with one notable exception.

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For white young adults, higher levels of student debt have no correlation with the likelihood that someone will be living back home. Overall, borrowers with more student debt weren’t more likely to move back in with their parents. And in fact, the opposite was true: Those who “boomerang” home actually had less student debt than those who did not. (That means many of you can stop blaming college costs for the fact that you’re still lounging on your parents’ sofa.)

But the story is quite different for black young adults, for whom a 10% increase in student debt is associated with a 20% increase in the risk of boomeranging. The study adds to a growing body of research showing that student debt is far more economically and socially burdensome for black youths than for white youths.

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Black students tend to have higher debt burdens than white students and are more likely to have private loans—which are more expensive and offer less protections for borrowers than federal loans. Research shows black students also are more likely to attend for-profit colleges or underfunded colleges, which have higher dropout rates and poorer job market outcomes.

This also helps explains why student debt is harder to repay for black young adults, and likely why student debt seems to play a role in boomeranging for black youths, but not for whites.

In general, researchers found that the factor with the largest influence on boomeranging was college dropouts. Young adults who had pursued a degree but failed to complete it had a 40% higher risk of ending up on their parents’ couch than did peers who did complete their degree.

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Jason Houle, a co-author of the study and assistance professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, says the study adds nuance to the ongoing debate of whether and how much student debt is stunting young adults financially and socially.

“It’s not an either/or — is student debt good or bad?” Houle says. “For some kids, debt is a good bet and for some kids, debt is a bad bet — and that seems to break down along racial lines.”