Is “Boomeranging” Correlated with Student Debt?

By Rachel Fenton

A recent paper by sociologists Jason N. Houle and Cody Warner examined the relationship between student debt and college students “boomeranging” (or returning to their parental home after living independently at college).  The researchers used federal longitudinal survey data representing a cohort of more than 5,000 young adults who were born in the early 1980s and attended college at a time of record levels of student debt.

Key findings are below.

  • Among the young adults who lived away from their parental home while attending college, 59 percent “boomeranged”.
    • The risk of boomeranging was the highest in the first two years of young adults living independently. Eleven percent returned home in the first year and 23 percent returned home in the second year.
  • Young adults who boomeranged were more likely to be younger or black. Also, young adults who boomeranged were more likely to not have a college degree or have attended a for-profit school.
    • Young adults who took on adult social roles, such as marrying, having children or home ownership, were less likely to boomerang.
  • Young adults who boomeranged reported significantly less student debt than those who did not return home. The researchers found “little evidence that student debt is linked to boomeranging in the total population.”
    • For black young adults, the association between debt and boomeranging was stronger than it was for white young adults. A 10 percent increase in student debt was associated with a 20 percent increase in the risk of returning home for black young adults, but no increased risk for white young adults.
    • In looking at the amount of debt held by black young adults, small amounts of debt (<$15,000) were significantly associated with the increased risk of boomeranging, while other levels of debt did not show statistical significance.
  • In contrast to student debt, college completion was a key correlate of boomeranging. Young adults who attended two- and four-year colleges but did not graduate had a 40 percent higher risk of boomeranging than their peers.  Not completing a degree “increases boomeranging in part because it creates economic and social strain”.
  • This study may face some data limitations since student debt was measured at three times over several years and not annually. Also, there may be some measurement bias in young adults accurately reporting whether they returned to their parental home, and it is possible that the young adults may not have lived independently long enough to show an association between debt and boomeranging.  The researchers suggest that future research continue to follow this cohort to examine the long-term impacts of student debt on adult outcomes.