Conventional wisdom holds that borrowing for higher education is a debt that’s worth the investment, since people with college degrees earn about a million dollars more over the course of their careers than people who have just a high school diploma. While this is still true, a new study looks at an overlooked side effect of student debt that can haunt borrowers all the way into retirement.
The “Calculated Choices: Examining Debt and Retirement Savings Decisions” report from research company LIMRA’s Secure Retirement Institute found that millennials—characterized as young adults between 21 and 34 years old who enter the workforce with student debt—are less likely to take full advantage of an employer-provided 401(k) match, even though this benefit is cited by financial advisers as one of the easiest ways for young people to start saving for retirement.
“Millennials without student loans are 60 percent more likely to maximize their employer match compared with those who are paying education loans,” LIMRA reported in a recent blog post about the findings.
Researchers crunched the numbers and compared a young adult who started in the workforce without any student loan debt to a 22-year-old with $30,000 in federal student loan debt—a plausible number, given that the average four-year college graduate with debt owes about $29,000 upon getting out, according to The Institute for College Access and Success. The indebted new grad would end up with $325,000 less in a 401(k) at retirement, assuming a conservative 5% rate of return and a $35,000 starting salary at the age of 22. For students with $50,000 in debt, which is not uncommon for those who go on to earn masters or doctorate degrees, the hit to their nest egg is nearly $530,000.
The upshot is that millennials are paying off their student loans at the expense of their retirement savings, a trade-off that could cost them in a big way decades down the line.
Not that they have much choice: Student loan debt has to be prioritized (although many have suggested that default rates are reaching troubling proportions) because there’s no way to get rid of it: No charge-offs, no bankruptcy. Lawmakers have tried to eliminate some of the red tape around income-based repayment programs, but success has been mixed, at best.
Compounding this problem is the fact that today’s young adults entered the job market in a lackluster economy, and many had their early career ambitions derailed by extended stints of un- or underemployment. Average student loan debts have never been higher, but the people carrying those debts aren’t landing good-paying jobs the way they might have expected.
While no one's suggesting that college isn't worth it, studies like these put into sharp relief the long-term costs of borrowing in order to get a higher education. “This research underscores the importance for parents and students to examine the amount of student loan debt they are willing to take on,” LIMRA said.