We're concerned about the wrong Millennials. It's about income, not debt.
There's been a lot of discussion regarding how financially-challenged Millennials are due to education debt. For example, there are many reports on the negative impact of debt on home ownership. While it's true that Millennial college graduates own homes at lower rates than Gen X did, it's the non-graduates we should be most concerned about.
Not only have non-graduate home ownership rates fallen by over twice as much as they have for graduates, but also there will ultimately be a lot more non-graduates. Even at the most optimistic estimates for Millennial college graduation, non-graduates will outnumber them by 3:2.
The chart below compares Millennial and Gen X home ownership, segmented by educational attainment. The chart compares Gen X in the year 2000 with Millennials in 2016. This makes the analysis comparable, because in those years the oldest members of each generation were the same age (35).
I focused the analysis on the suburbs. That's where the highest rates of home ownership are, and my prior work demonstrates that's where the bulk of Millennials are ultimately headed. Additionally, in order to get a good read on those with graduate degrees, I focused the analysis on the leading edge of each generation. In this case that's the householders who were 30 - 35.
The leftmost set of columns compares Gen X and Millennial home ownership among high school graduates. In 2000 59% of these Gen X householders owned their homes. This dropped to 44% among Millennials in 2016. That's a 15 point decrease! But it's not the largest fall. Home ownership fell by over 18 points for householders who attended college but did not earn a degree. You can see this in the second set of columns from the left.
Now, take a look at the rightmost columns. They compare homeownership for those with graduate degrees. These are the households with the greatest debt. Upon graduation, 37% of those earning an advanced degree have debts of $50k or greater (Table A.3). Yet, home ownership fell by less than 2 points for these households.
So, the households with the greatest student debt are those with the highest relative home ownership rates, and those who have less debt have fared the worst. So, if debt doesn't tell the story, then what does? In a word, Income.
The chart below details median household income over the same time frame for the same groups. It's not too hard to see what's going on. The real incomes of those without a degree have dropped considerably, while those with a degree have held steady.
Ironically and perniciously, the large drop in home ownership among those who attended, but did not graduate college, may be partially due to student debt. According to a recent study, over the course of 2015 and 2016, 3.9 million students dropped out of college with an average debt of over $7,100. This may be quite a handicap for those with a median household income of $57,000 and a median personal income of $30,000 (not shown).
To cap off the discussion, in 2016 there were over 1.5 million high school graduates between the ages of 30 and 35 who hadn't earned a bachelors or associates degree and who lived with a parent or grandparent. Their median personal income was less than $19,000. It's not student debt holding them back or a lack of affordable housing. They just don't make enough money to move out.
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Unless otherwise noted, all the of preceding analyses were based on my analysis of data from The Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey, conducted by the US Census Bureau. Data sourced from IPUMS-CPS, University of Minnesota, www.ipums.org.