One of the damaging effects of crippling student debt has long been thought to be “boomeranging,” when college graduates move back in with their parents after they finish school because they can’t afford to live on their own. But new science suggests that boomeranging isn’t prevalent for everyone at the same rate. If students are black, or if they haven’t finished their studies, the chances of a return home is much, much higher.
A new study from Dartmouth indicates that debt alone isn’t a good indicator of the likelihood of boomeranging. The researchers drew data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1997 Cohort–a long-term study following the fates of 8,984 respondents born between 1980 and 1984. From this sample, the researchers picked out only the youngsters who attended college, and who also moved out of the parental home to do so.
The numbers showed that instead of debt, the biggest indicator of boomeranging is college completion. That is, young adults who flunk out are way more likely to end up back on their parents’ doorstep. Those who graduate are much more likely to stay independent. Likewise, if a college-goer has married or is cohabiting, if they own their own home, or if they have a good job, they will probably remain independent.
That’s not to say that debt has nothing to do with it at all. While the data across the entire surveyed group shows no correlation between student debt and boomeranging, if you look at black students, there is an effect. “Boomeranging is stronger for blacks than for whites, because for blacks, debt is more burdensome due in part to discrimination and hardship in credit, college, and labor markets,” the researchers wrote in the study.
The theory goes like this: College debt is indeed crushing and hard to escape, but a college education also provides opportunities for the successful student. If they drop out, though, the student gives up these advantages. And for certain ethnic groups, those increased opportunities aren’t enough to make a difference. In short, discrimination against non-whites makes debt a much bigger burden for them.
“On the one hand, it looks like college completion–much more so than student debt–is a stronger determinant of returning home among young people,” says co-author and assistant professor of sociology at Dartmouth Jason Houle in a statement about the research. “But on the other hand, the burden of student debt falls disproportionately on racial minorities, which raises important concerns about how student debt may help some groups of young people but hurt others across racial lines.”
Debt itself, then, isn’t the problem. While onerous, and seemingly impossible to pay off, it is possible to escape student debt. But, like so many things in the U.S., the consequences are much easier to escape if you’re white.