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Behind the falling US birthrate: too much student debt to afford kids?

The record-low birthrate in the US is showing no signs of bouncing back, even with the economy on the mend. Evidence is growing that huge student debt may be deterring people from starting families.

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"This is new," says Carl Van Horn, coauthor of the Rutgers study and director of the university's Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. "This is a very serious level of obligation, and it is affecting all the choices these graduates make."

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Collectively, the college loan bill in America comes to at least $1 trillion, the largest consumer debt sector outside of home mortgages, reports the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This indebtedness, moreover, is concentrated among people younger than 40 – and it is accelerating much faster than the rate of inflation. The average college loan debt per student is nearing $27,000 – triple the average in 1992 – as a result of the soaring cost of college.

Hu and Coey both acknowledge that they were not very savvy about finances when they took out student loans. Inexperience and naiveté about financial products are nearly a universal problem among college students, many of whom have never even had a credit card, says Ms. Butler of the Young Invincibles. Moreover, student loans are the only form of consumer debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

Members of the group traveled the country during the past year to gather information about the student loan burden.

"What we found anecdotally," Butler says, "was one boyfriend or girlfriend after another saying they wanted to buy a house or start families, but they really wanted to pay off their student debt first."

Factors driving birthrate down

This new burden on decisionmaking stemming from student loan debt comes on top of other trends – some long-term, some short-term – that also work against childbearing. For one, more than 1 in 5 young adults ages 18 to 34 have delayed having a child because of the economic slowdown, approximately the same proportion that postponed marriage, a 2012 Pew survey found.

For another, the share of young adults ages 18 to 29 who are married fell from 59 percent in 1960 to 20 percent by 2010. The age at which men and women marry has also been creeping up, reaching an all-time high of 26.5 for women and 28.7 for men, according to Pew Research.

Big changes in the dynamics between men and women are also affecting marriage and childbearing, says psychologist and marriage counselor Wendy Walsh, author of the forthcoming book "The 30-Day Love Detox." For the first time in America's history, women outnumber men in higher education. As women gain more education and financial independence, they tend to marry less and later – and have fewer children, she notes.

Shifting sexual mores and the increased prevalence of cohabitation have only accelerated this trend, she adds. "More and more couples are [having children] without marrying at all," says Ms. Walsh, noting the attention lavished on celebrities who do likewise.

And the notion that immigration will stave off negative population growth in the United States is not as surefire as it used to be. The recent Pew study on the US birthrate noted that the drop was "led by a plunge in births to immigrant women." While the birthrate for US-born women fell 6 percent from 2007 to 2010, the rate for foreign-born women dropped by 14 percent during that time. These reductions may not turn around soon, as economies south of the border strengthen and fewer women there come to the US, says Mr. Christopher of IHS Global Insight.

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