Are Student Loans a Reverse Dowry? The Dynamics of Debt Repayment and Marriage Formation in Young Adulthood

Robert Bozick, Academy for Educational Development
Angela Estacion, Academy for Educational Development

This paper examines the dynamics of student loan debt and family formation in young adulthood using a nationally representative sample of bachelor’s degree recipients (N = 9,380). Drawing upon contrasting perspectives on economic resources and family formation, we examine whether student debt expedites the transition to marriage as predicted by the economic independence perspective, or delays the transition to marriage as predicted by the reverse dowry perspective. We find that total loan debt is unrelated to marriage, but that the dynamics of loan repayment are related to marriage timing. As loan debt decreases, the odds of marriage increase. This relationship is stronger for women than for men, and attenuates over time. These findings lend support to the reverse dowry perspective, which posits that the financial weight of monthly loan repayments acts as a reverse dowry, impeding family formation in the years immediately following college graduation.

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Presented in Session 5: Marriage and Union Formation