Want Your Daughter Single at 30? Send Her to College at 18.

Student loan debt isn't just burying young people in red ink. It's reshaping the modern American family.

John Elliott | November 21, 2017

Student loan debt isn't just burying young people in red ink. It's reshaping the modern American family.
Want Your Daughter Single at 30? Send Her to College at 18.

When Isaiah Lemmon formally asked Jay and Patricia Boccabello to marry their only daughter, they were delighted. The engagement culminated what could best be described as a picture-perfect courtship. Isaiah and Nancy had met four years earlier at the St. Michael’s Conference in Michigan, a summer seminar for high school and college students in the conservative Anglican community.

Isaiah began to use his frequent business trips to South Carolina to spend time with the Boccabello’s. Jay described it as a kind of 19th Century affair in which the prospective groom comes to audition with girl’s family. Nancy, in turn, made several trips to the Lemmon’s in Liberty, Kentucky. Isaiah’s nine siblings immediately took to her. Both families knew about each other since Isaiah’s father pastors a church in the Anglican communion to which the Boccabello’s belong. Since Isaiah was a part of their broader church community, Jay was able to check him out. (Isaiah had very good references.) 

By any standards the relationship had a solid foundation: both families supported it, all shared the same faith, Isaiah had his own business and was debt free, and the young couple were very much in love.  Patricia had an extra reason to be happy.  She married at 32. Her daughter would be spared all that. 

But Nancy, Jay and Patricia quickly learned that not everyone in Charleston, South Carolina, was thrilled with the engagement. Nancy, you see, was 18.

The first negative reactions came at work, from Nancy’s middle-aged and divorced female colleagues.  These women said a lot of things, and little of it was positive.

“You are wasting your life.” 

“You will regret it’”

“You will get divorced in a year.”

“You will get pregnant and be stuck.”

When her divorced boss heard the news, he decided to take on a fatherly role: “You need to go to college and then decide what you want to do. You are too young to make up your mind.”

Baby Boomers and their cheap advice to Millennials

If it was relatively easy to discount the source of this advice, the reactions of church and family in Charleston were not. Jay recalls an “unbelievable torrent of resistance.” At their Anglican church in downtown Charleston 60-something, baby boomer women would regularly take Nancy aside to have a talk with her. 

Arguments first focused on money and the future.  “If something happens to Isaiah, you won’t be able to earn a living.”

Every financial advisor has an easy answer for this:  term life insurance. Isaiah can get a million dollar policy for $50 a month. That would pay for four years at Jay’s alma mater, Clemson.

Even if Nancy were to get a B.A., it would rapidly lose its economic value once she left the work place to become a full-time wife and mother. Nancy’s mother, Patricia, can speak to the issue.  She worked as an architect until she married. If she wanted to return to that field now, she likely would have to go back and get another degree. “Any degree – you have to keep it up,” Patricia explains. 

Between life insurance and the strong “safety net” formed by Nancy’s family and church, the argument about the financial necessity of college did not stand up to any kind of scrutiny.

But this was not the most important argument that the Anglican baby-boomer women used to pressure Nancy.  They said things like this: “You can’t know your own mind. You have been too sheltered and can’t make any decisions.”

Shrugging off the advice of well-meaning church ladies was one thing. But dealing with her grandparents was quite another. They expressed opposition from the very start. They repeatedly asserted that “Nancy has to go to college.” A week before the wedding Isaiah tells how they took him aside and said: “This is not about you. It is about Nancy. She needs to go to college.” Nancy is close to her grandparents.  She said that this really hurt her.  And it confused her. “Grandma married at 16.”

Jay and Patricia both have advanced degrees. Jay has a PhD from Oxford in Classics and Patristics.  A college education was always on the table for their two children. They home-schooled Nancy to give her solid academic training if she wanted to go to college.

“We never told her not to go to college,” Jay said. “But we emphasized that she had to know why she was going and that she needed to be emotionally and spiritually ready to jump into the cesspool.”  

As the family discussed the arguments Nancy confronted—“you are too young, you can’t know your own mind”—Patricia turned the issue around: “So. She is too young to marry but she is old enough to go off 500 miles to college and all its bad influences. Marriage is too dangerous but college is not?” 

Jay summed up his views: “My daughter is safe with Isaiah. She is not safe at college.”

Jay and Patricia were convinced that Nancy knew her own mind. They gave her their blessing and total support to go ahead and marry Isaiah.






The Lost World of the Baby Boomers and the Harsh Reality of the Millenials

I am a baby boomer. I think that I understand those baby boomer Anglican women in Charleston. Their views reflect their own generation’s experience. Their parents paid for college out of pocket. They met their future spouses as undergraduates. And they snared husbands who wanted to accommodate their new wives’ desire to put their college degrees to work. I finished my undergrad work in 1976.  Virtually all my college friends and acquaintances were married within four years of graduation. Student loan debt was not an issue. 

But that is not the world which exists for 18-year-old girls who go off to college today. I learned this working at two non-profits in Washington, D.C., mentoring dozens of young journalists into their first and second jobs. I have too many female mentees in their mid to late twenties who have made the bitter discovery that college was a bad idea.    

This was brought home when I decided to visit “Jessica” in North Carolina on my drive back from Charleston to Washington, D.C. Jessica was one of my journalism mentees. When I first interviewed her for an internship, I recognized a talented and driven news hound who would be a great political reporter. She was editor of her college newspaper and she had two excellent summer internships. I knew that she would be easy to place.

In the Spring of 2014 I found her an entry level position at a well- regarded publication in our nation’s capital. It was a good fit and a great launching pad. But I was shocked when she called me to tell me that she could not accept the job offer. She and her father had done the math.  Between her student loan burden and Washington rents, she simply could not afford it. I asked her what her student loan debt amounted to.  Jessica said: $80,000. Instead of her dream job she went to work for a public relations firm in a small town in the Midwest. 

Fortunately, things did not end there. In early 2015 I got a call from an editor at North Carolina newspaper who hosted several of my interns. He wanted to hire a reporter to cover state politics. I told him about Jessica. He met her and offered her the job. Jessica decided that she could swing this one financially. The salary was higher and the cost of living dramatically lower. She has worked there for two years and loves the job. 

But over lunch she told me that she has the dream job, and little else. As it turns out, her total loan debt stands at $97,000. Servicing that debt each month costs more than her rent. When medical bills and auto repair piled up a year ago, she took on a second job, bartending. It was a crushing work load. She was so exhausted from working two jobs that she finally went to her editor, explained the situation, and asked for a raise. He gave it. She quit her bartending job but found it ironic that she could make more money doing that than journalism.

When I asked her if she was in a relationship, she shook her head. “The guys here are all idiots.”

So. There you have it. Jessica is in her late twenties, with a $97,000 student loan debt, no prospects for marriage and a job she will have to stay at for years to pay off the debt.

I wish Jessica’s story was the exception. It is not. When Jessica first called me in 2014 about her student loan debt, I put her in contact with another mentee who had $100,000 debt load. This mentee told Jessica how her starvation budget allowed her to work her D.C. journalism job, pay the rent, and keep up on her loans. I have mentees who went to law school and came away with $160,000 in loan debt. I recently spoke to one who earns over $100,000 but has not made a dent in the principal of the 160K loan.

National Student-Loan Debt 

Student Loan Debt Adds Up to Singleness

Not everyone racks up $100,000 in student loan debt. But I have seen a clear pattern among my female mentees. (I know these things because the girls tell me. The guys don’t.) At 18 they decided to go to college because their parents did and that is what everyone else does. They never even considered not going. They never thought about not taking out the student loans. After graduation, they found a job in journalism or at a libertarian or conservative organization in Washington. Going off to Europe for a year was out of the question. They had to start paying off their $50,000ish (give or take 10K) student loan debt right away. If they are frugal, they can pay off the student loan debt in five years. At which point they are ready for the next phase in life, marriage and children.

But then there aren’t any guys. Normal ones, that is.

And those young women happy enough to meet someone can then wait a long time for a ring. I follow the Facebook posts of many of my former mentees. One recently celebrated her sixth anniversary at a libertarian organization. She has had a “boyfriend” for three years. Three years? Three years after I met Janke we were married with a new born. 

Those Anglican baby boomer women have no idea what they are telling Nancy Boccabello to do. For too many young women, the decision to go to college means student loan debt and singleness. If I were to gather ten of my mentees in D.C. to talk with Nancy,  I am pretty certain that most would tell her to marry at 18. 

“Jessica” is hardly an anomaly. Seventy-four percent of students graduate with student loan debt with an average of $31,000 in total debt. About one-quarter of the borrowers are either in default or struggling to stay current. These figures don’t say much about the consequences of this debt load.

Studies indicate that one-third of millennials live at home. Many cannot afford to buy houses or consider marriage. One of my mentees calls her student debt load “my negative dowry.” I see a whole generation of young women who have rolled into a situation in life without thinking about the consequences and waking up ten years later only to realize that this was not the life they envisioned. 

Putting student loan debt in the bankruptcy laws is certainly one necessary policy change. It would allow millions of young people to escape debt slavery. It would also force the higher education system to start pricing education according to its real worth. 

But I am not so sure that alone would be enough. Too many young men in their twenties are not willing to commit to marriage. They are too busy enjoying being “boys that shave.” If we are going to make it possible for young men and women to marry and start families, then a more concrete economic incentive may be necessary. The former Communist East Germany (of all places) may provide a good model for this.

millennials in debt

The DDR and Early Marriage

Thirty years ago my wife and I were on vacation on the Dutch island of Terschelling with Jochen and Andrea Enders of Cologne, Germany. Jochen and Andrea had married in 1983 and had two children within three years. Andrea made clear why:  A woman’s career will always suffer because she has children. Better to have them right way. Jochen and Andrea, however, had been influenced by their experiences visiting relatives in the German Democratic Republic. The regime in East Berlin wanted academically trained women to have two to three children. They offered a 7,000 Mark loan to couples who married before the age of 26. Each child born to the marriage reduced the amount of the loan, with the third child bringing total forgiveness. Young families also got preference for housing in the state controlled housing market. As a result, a majority of college-educated East German women had their children in their twenties.  In his German best seller Germany is Abolishing Itself (Deutschland Schafft sich ab), Thilo Sarrazin notes that 40 percent of college-educated German women are not having any children, leading Germany to become dumber and dumber. He suggests giving premiums of 50 to 100 thousand Euros to young married couples to provide the financial means to have children early. The East German model is getting attention in the Federal Republic.

A Pew Research Center study has shown that American women with advanced degrees are more likely to have children than their German counterparts.   In 1994 35 percent of women with advanced degrees were childless in their forties; that declined to 20 percent by 2015.  But another Pew Study indicates that most delay children until after they turn thirty.  In addition, these studies are looking at women who graduated before the student loan debt explosion of the past ten years.

Not ‘the Right Time’

Kerstin Herrnkind, who has written a book  complaining  about the position of childless women  in Germany, admitted in an interview with German radio that she should have had children during her undergraduate years. She noted that she had the right partner in her early twenties. But they did not feel it was the “right time.” By the time was right, the partner was gone. After that she could not find a suitable partner for marriage and children. Now she is beyond her child bearing years. She concludes that she would have had the energy for children in her twenties while the college schedule would have given her the flexibility to have them. The East Germans got it, as did our friends Jochen and  Andrea.

A $50,000 loan which is paid off after three children would be a significant incentive for both young women and men to reconsider college education and student loan debt. 

One cannot expect policy changes like the East German model in the short run. But perhaps the stories about student loan debt will help some think twice about signing those promissory notes. And perhaps the example of Nancy Boccabello will show many that there is another way.

As far is Nancy is concerned, it looks like “going to college” is not on the agenda. A  year after their marriage Nancy is expecting her first child.


[Image Credit: MaxPixel]