IF A GOVERNMENT set out slowly to strangle the family life of its people, what would be the best tactic? One diabolical approach would be to saddle young adults in their early 20s with massive debt. Surely, this would delay marriages, as potential spouses shied away from this perverse form of anti-dowry. Even more surely, this tactic would push back childbearing for a decade or more, as potential mothers and fathers put off having children until their debt collectors were satisfied. Such delays would mean more infertility, smaller families, and empty or never-formed homes.

This is precisely the policy being pursued by the U.S. government, in alliance with the nation's colleges, universities, and other post-secondary schools. It's called "Guaranteed Student Loans." In 2002, the average new college graduate carried an estimated debt of $22,000, up from $8,200 in 1991. An average couple that contemplated marriage on graduation would calculate a joint debt of $44,000, a remarkably heavy burden under which to start a new home. According to the State Public Interest Research Group's (PIRG) Higher Education Project, 39 percent of new graduates with loans carry an "unmanageable debt," defined as requiring payments of 8 percent or more of the borrower's monthly income. Even in 1997, when the burden was significantly less, one survey conducted by Nellie Mae (the nation's largest non-profit provider of student loans) reported that 15 percent of graduates had delayed getting married because of their student debt load; 22 percent had delayed childbearing, up from 12 percent in 1991. The figures today are presumably higher.

Indeed, Census 2000 statistics point to a massive retreat by young adults from marriage and children. In that year, 73 percent of women ages 20-24 were in the never-married category, up from 36 percent in the pre-loan days of 1970; for young men, the never-married figure in 2000 was 84 percent. Among 25 to 29-year-olds, the proportion of the never-married has tripled during the era of student loans. Cohabitation, meanwhile, has displaced marriage for many of the young. There were 4.6 million of these unmarried couples in 2000, an increase of 800 percent since 1970. The marital fertility rate in 2000, meanwhile, was a third below the 1965 figure. While obviously not the sole or even perhaps the main cause of these changes, the burden of debt has surely played a part. It creates perverse material incentives for young adults to succumb to cultural trends like cohabitation and the avoidance of parenthood.

And the problem of college costs seems to be getting worse. A new report released last month by the College Board shows public university tuition up 9.6 percent in 2002; at four-year private universities, it's up 5.8 percent (while the overall inflation rate is under 2 percent). The report also underscored the increasing reliance by all institutions on student loans.

How did this happen? When the federal program began, the loans were largely modest supplements to grants, which provided direct support (without the obligation of repayment) to low- and low-middle-income students. Yet the real value of the grants (eventually called Pell Grants) fell over time. Twenty years ago, the average award covered 84 percent of state school tuition, fees, room and board; by 2000, only 39 percent. Loans took up the slack. In addition, federal loans became available to families with higher incomes, drawing nearly 60 percent of families with college students into the debt trap.

Moreover, colleges and universities have found student loans to be a wonderful way to expand budgets. During the last decade, the costs of college or university education rose about 6 percent a year. At private four-year colleges, tuition climbed from an average of $10,348 in 1990 to $19,312 in 2000, an increase of 87 percent; among state universities, the increase was 85 percent. And yet the overall Consumer Price Index increased during these years by only 30 percent. Colleges and universities have padded their budgets and avoided financial discipline by loading their hapless students with ever more federally inspired debt.

But it's a game that should not continue. The problem is not so much the default rate (although that remains stubbornly high at 11 to 12 percent), nor the spiraling amount of new education debt being generated each year ($42 billion in 2001, up 35 percent since 1995), nor the approach to a probable limit on personal debt that even giddy undergraduates might recognize. Rather, just as with the infamous Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, we see another federal entitlement undermining the material basis of family formation. Intended this time to encourage investment in education (and so improve "human capital"), the student loan program more actively works to postpone marriage and to prevent the birth of children. As an effective form of contraception, the loans actually keep new "human capital" from forming. Viewed this way, the student loan program corrupts the nation's social order and distorts its future.

WHAT THEN SHOULD BE DONE? One option would be to abolish federal student loans altogether, and let the market sort things out. But alas, federal education loans now account indirectly for up to a quarter of college and university revenues. Going cold turkey would close many schools and disrupt them all. These bloated institutions, found in every congressional district, can be counted on to fight abolition--or even significant cutbacks--to the death. In short, repeal or reform is politically unlikely.

Another option would be to convert future loans into "super Pell grants": college vouchers for most, if not quite all, citizens. But the cost of the Pell program is already soaring: $9.1 billion in 2001, up two-thirds since 1995. To replace all federal education loans with grants, another $40 billion would do the trick for 2003. If we assume even modest inflation in program costs (6 percent annually, as opposed to the 11 percent experienced in recent years), this entitlement would rise to the staggering figure of $157 billion in the year 2020.

Yet there is a third choice, one that's cheaper, simpler, and more appropriate. It would take a program that discourages marriage and children and reverse the incentives. Specifically, for every new child born to indebted married parents, the federal government should pay off one-fourth of their outstanding student loan debt, up to $5,000 each for mother and father (a figure that would be indexed to overall inflation).

This choice would begin removing some of the disincentives toward marriage and childbearing that young graduates now face, creating modest incentives in their place. The birth of four children over the space of 6 to 8 years could eliminate debt of over $40,000. At the same time, this plan would be far more cost effective than the "super Pell grants" noted above. Why? It is highly unlikely that all indebted graduates would have the four children needed to eliminate their entire debt. Moreover, the cap on the maximum amount would mean that over half of graduates would still repay a significant share of their obligation, even if they brought four children into the world. Finally, using the overall inflation rate as an index, rather than inflation in education costs alone, would dramatically constrain projected costs.

Allow me to address some of the immediate (and probably frantic) objections:

--Why favor marriage? The state has a compelling public interest in the marriage of young adults. Recent research shows that both married men and women are, on average, more productive, wealthier, healthier, happier, and much more engaged as citizens than the unmarried. Moreover, children growing up in married-couple households are also significantly healthier, safer, and happier, more likely to succeed in school and life, and much less likely to be abused or imprisoned or to use alcohol and illegal drugs than children growing up in any other circumstance. These public goods from marriage translate into higher government revenues, lower government expenses, more citizen engagement, and a more stable public order.

--What about young adults who cannot biologically bear children? The same debt forgiveness could be accorded to those married couples that adopt a child.

--Why create an incentive for more births? Other existing federal policy measures, such as the income tax and the Social Security system, also create incentives hostile to marriage and child-rearing. This modest countermeasure to yet another anti-family policy would encourage the birth of new human life only within relatively responsible married-couple homes. Moreover, the average American life, circa 2002, generates $1,700,000 in economic gain over the course of its existence (for the children of college graduates, double that). Even if we deduct half of that, $850,000--an extremely high estimate--to cover the cost of each person's public education and possible public care, the net gain is clear. A modest federal investment of $10,000 in parental debt relief at the start of a new life would--for a change--be a good public investment.

--Won't the Supreme Court declare this measure unconstitutional? Perhaps. Given the lack of principle guiding the Court in recent decades, anything might be declared unconstitutional. In this case, though, a strong argument for the state's compelling interest in targeted debt relief can--and should--be made. The alternative is the accelerated shriveling of family life among America's young adults.

Allan Carlson is president of the Howard Center and Distinguished Fellow in Family Policy Studies at the Family Research Council.

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