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Study: Student Loan Presence Linked to Worse Student Health Outcomes and Practices

Having student loans is associated with worse health outcomes and practices, according to a new study published in the Journal of American College Health. 

Dr. Arielle KuperbergDr. Arielle Kuperberg

“Student loans, physical and mental health, and health care use and delay in college” examined data collected from surveys in 2017 of 3,248 undergraduates at two public U.S. universities, looking to see whether there was a relationship between student loan presence and the health of students.

"I wanted to see, if you hold all else equal, if there is a difference in health and mental health between students with and without student loans, and if there's difference in the degree to which they're using health care, mental health care, dental care, and prescription medicine," said Dr. Arielle Kuperberg, co-author of the study and an associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

The research found that college students with loans had significantly worse self-reported physical and mental health and more major medical issues. These students also received regular dental care and were more likely to reduce medication use or delay mental, physical, or dental health care to save money.

Essentially, in almost every arena in which there were differences between those with and those without loans, the former was worse off, the report authors wrote.

"It comes as no shock that people with student debt often face worse health outcomes than people without debt,” said Amy Czulada, outreach & advocacy manager at the Student Borrower Protection Center. “Student debt comes with countless financial stressors that force people to make impossible choices: ‘Do I put food on my table this month, pick up my vital medication, or pay my student loan bill?’”

To note however, the study did not find differences in diagnosed mental health conditions, Kuperberg said.

"But part of that may be that you may not even get a diagnosis unless you actually go to a doctor,"  she added.

This study comes as part of a larger project Kuperberg and her colleagues are undertaking, one about various kinds of inequalities related to student loans, such as the relationships loan presence has with dating prospects, ideas of having children, marriage, and assistance to/from family.

“There are disparities between those with student debt and those without that extend beyond finances and repayment obligations,” study co-author Dr. Joan Maya Mazelis, an associate professor of sociology at Rutgers University Camden. “Disadvantages debt holders confront are often multilayered and interconnected – complicating life for young people trying to make their way in the world."

The study’s findings indicate that the prominence of loans in higher ed have resulted in unintended consequences, such as changes and effects to people’s behaviors during formative years of adulthood, Kuperberg said.

"College is supposed to overcome those poorer circumstances of people,” Kuperberg said. “But this debt limits the ability of college to do that. What's disturbing to me is that we know that college is also this key time of what scientists call 'emerging adulthood' where people are first leaving their parent's house and establishing habits that they're going to then carry on into the future. And we're seeing these huge increases in people putting off medical and dental care.

“[The students] are in these key years of establishing habits, and maybe in part because of their debt or the financial circumstances that led them to take on that debt, they are establishing habits that we know are not going to be serving them very well in the long run," she added.

Another notable finding from the study was that, among those with loans, white, Latino, and Asian students were underrepresented while Black students were overrepresented. But in terms of gender, age, or school, there were no differences.

Arrman Kyaw can be reached at [email protected] 

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