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The Changing Nature of the Association Between Student Loan Debt and Marital Behavior in Young Adulthood

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In this study, we compared young adults from the NLSY 1979 and the NLSY 1997 to examine how the relationship between student debt and the likelihood of marrying changed across cohorts, in light of the growing acceptance of non-marital cohabitation. In the 1997 cohort, student loan debt among college-attending young adults was associated with delays in marriage, but not in the 1979 cohort. Among men, the positive association between education debt and marriage in the 1979 cohort was no longer evident for the 1997 cohort of young men. Our findings provide further evidence that rising student debt is reshaping relationship formation among college-going youth, and that as cohabitation has become more widespread, social and economic disparities in who marries without cohabiting first have increased.

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  1. For example, a respondent observed at age 28 is assumed to have debt levels that fall between their reported values in the YAST 25 module and YAST 30 module. Results presented here are similar when data are restructured into a YAST-wave format (where respondents are observed three times, once at each YAST survey). This is a common method when the variable is known to follow a linear path (see Houle and Warner (2017) for another debt example).


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Correspondence to Fenaba R. Addo.

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Fenaba Addo, Jason Houle, and Sharon Sassler declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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This study uses publicly available secondary data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997. The authors did not interview the respondents.

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Addo, F.R., Houle, J.N. & Sassler, S. The Changing Nature of the Association Between Student Loan Debt and Marital Behavior in Young Adulthood. J Fam Econ Iss 40, 86–101 (2019).

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