Graduation cap sitting on top of a pile of cash

The month of May means graduation. This is the time of the year to celebrate accomplishment, take pride in completing degrees, and look to the future. In fact, college graduation is called “commencement,” signaling the beginning of something—for many, it’s what they hope is the beginning of independent adulthood.

But in our recently published research, we found that college graduation doesn’t always bring the commencement of “adulthood” if adulthood is defined as financial or residential independence. Especially among college graduates with loans.

To find out about how students and college graduates with and without loans rely on family for housing and financial help, what kinds of help they give to their families in return, and how they feel about it, we interviewed and surveyed students and graduates at two public universities. Our data were all collected before the pandemic-spurred loan pause started in March 2020, allowing us to examine how student debt repayment obligations shaped young adults’ experiences of relying on and helping family before and after graduation.

Our research suggests rising student debt is reshaping the experiences of young adulthood for college graduates. Graduates often must live with parents or other family members to be able to afford other expenses and student loan payments. We found that financial support from family and living with family were both common, and graduates with loans were more likely to rely on regular financial help from parents, even though they had been less likely to have that support while they were still in college. After graduation, Alice[1] was living with her mother and contributing to some household bills in exchange, and told us “It’s definitely saving me money, and I have to place a live, so I’m thankful for that.”

At the same time, research participants felt that living with family kept them from crossing a threshold to adulthood. Ava, who was living with her parents, told us, “I just feel like you can’t be grown up living with your parents.” Yet, delaying residential independence also positioned graduates better for loan repayment, a major obstacle in reaching financial stability—another marker of the transition to adulthood. Participants Leo and PJ were both able to pay off all their student loans while living with their parents rent-free!

Sharing housing and pooling resources with family members helps graduates with loans. But it also often feels like an obligation, since their resources help their families, too. Some interview participants shared that they faced expectations of reciprocity—obligations to help family members in return for help they received—that were sometimes quite burdensome. In our survey, both students and graduates with loans were significantly more likely to give money to their families compared to those without loans, deepening their financial difficulties.

Two years after graduation, Monique was giving $300 a month to her mother and did a lot around the house. Monique’s romantic partner was also staying there and contributing $300 a month. Monique reported feeling overwhelmed at times: “I do a lot around the house, like besides work. I come home and I’m cooking because I have three younger siblings. I’m cooking dinner, I’m getting kids home from school and giving baths and getting them to bed. I take them to school in the morning, I get them dressed…I’m doing a lot.”

But Monique reported mostly feeling like the arrangement was working well, even if there were days her contributions felt weighty, and she knew she did a lot around the house because she hadn’t always been able to contribute financially.

We found that it is common for graduates to contribute monetarily to their households, and over half of graduates with loans reported giving money to family (compared to 28% of graduates without loans). But among those who gave money to their family, over half of graduates with loans (and over 70% of graduates without loans) also lived with their families. The financial contributions they gave usually amounted to less money than they would have to pay for housing if they were living independently. Ashley said it would be “cheaper than it would be if I was living by myself.” Noah told us that his decision to live at home and pay his parents several hundred dollars each month was “just the smartest thing financially.” He explained that “I can save my money, pay my loans, and then help my parents too.” He added, “the fact that I can contribute, it just feels more like a partnership more or less…. We help each other out.”

The changing funding structure for higher education—coupled with steeply rising college costs over the last several decades—has made college far more expensive for students and their families. The majority take out thousands of dollars in loans to fund their education. Completing their degrees positions graduating students to be much more likely to pay off their student loan debt, but it can take years or even decades. The pause on student loan repayment, interest, and collections has now been extended through August 31, 2022 after being repeatedly extended. People are wondering now, will student loan payments resume September 1, be paused again, or might student debt even be canceled? We’ve written before about how college students and graduates would approach their futures if their student debt were forgiven.

Our new findings suggest that if debt payments resume, college graduates will increasingly rely on their families for help, affecting multiple generations. If public higher education were adequately funded, college costs would be lower, loans would be less burdensome, and the experiences of college students and graduates would depend less on family resources. In the current higher education funding system, the outsized role that family resources play in paying for higher education instead contributes to persistent and deepening inequalities.

But given the current system, family help can be vital in enabling some graduates with loans to pay down their debt and eventually transition to independence—even if that independence is a bit delayed. So this commencement season, if you or someone you love is approaching college graduation: remember that it’s now common for graduates to live with family after completing their degrees. Given the high cost of college and the difficult burdens loans create, it’s often the best—or only—option that graduates have.

Joan Maya Mazelis is the author of Surviving Poverty: Creating Sustainable Ties among the Poor (NYU Press 2017). She is Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice and Acting Director of the Gender Studies Program at Rutgers University–Camden. Follow her @JoanieMazelis.

Arielle Kuperberg is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. Follow her @ATKuperberg

[1] All names used are pseudonyms.