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NEW YORK -- Student loan debt is much in the news of late, with a steady stream of articles about how borrowing decisions may limit graduates' ability to take certain jobs, live in certain areas, or even own a home. But what about the impact of borrowing during the college years?

A study released here Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association suggests that students who borrow are likely to have notably different experiences while in college from those who are able to enroll debt-free. And there are two distinct patterns for student borrowers, one with many more negative associations.

The study was based on surveys of students that asked them how much time each week they spend on certain activities. The data come from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen, which tracked students from nine liberal arts colleges, 14 private research universities, four public research universities and one historically black college. The authors -- Daniel Rudel and Natasha Yurk, both graduate students at Indiana University -- note that this sample may skew in favor of well-prepared, academically oriented students. But that may make the findings all the more striking.

The students were asked about hours spent in both academic and non-academic activities: studying, attending class, lab work, work for pay, watching television, listening to music, athletics (both participating and watching), attending parties, socializing and sleep, among others. When comparing just those who do and don't borrow, the results aren't shocking -- those who borrow are more likely to hold jobs for pay and work longer hours at them, for example. But as the researchers examined patterns, they found three patterns among students, with those borrowing ending up in two of them:

  • "Serious Student" (about 38 percent) is one of the groups of student borrowers. These students focus on academic and work-related activities, and are less involved in other activities than are those in the other two categories.
  • "Disengaged" (about 29 percent) is the other group of student borrowers. These students are the least likely, on average, to be spending time on either academics or student organizations. They spend more time than do others on media (television and music) and on sleep.
  • "Play Hard" (about 32 percent) is the category that is much less likely to include those who borrow. This group prioritizes time on athletics, student activities and partying, with lots of time also devoted to music. They spend less time on academics than do serious students, but appear to spend enough time "to get by," just not enough to excel.

The authors write that the analysis of three groups (instead of simply looking at borrowers vs. non-borrowers) yields different findings. For instance, looking simply at borrowers vs. non-borrowers doesn't suggest a significant difference in time on academics. The reality is that, for a large subset of borrowers, academics are not a priority, and this is masked in the other comparison because so many debt-free students also fail to prioritize academics.

Among students with debt, the greater the level of student debt, the more likely borrowers were to be in the "serious student" category and not the "disengaged" category -- a finding that surprised the researchers.

Asked in an interview if their findings might suggest that some debt could be good for students, both authors demurred. Rudel said he would be "pretty cautious" before endorsing that idea. "It does seem logical that students in debt are conscious of making the most of college," he said. "But what we are measuring is only the amount of time students spend on studying and other things, and we don't know what that translates into."

Yurk (who borrowed $15,000 to finance her undergraduate education at Northwestern University) said that that "we're not saying that debt is good. We would never say people should have to take out debt." The key fact, she said, is that students who borrow "are different," and that when they have less time or inclination to participate in student activities, "they are missing some of the quintessential college experience."

College leaders need to remember, she said, that debt doesn't just allow people to enroll in college, but changes their experience there. "Debt polarizes people," Yurk said. "There is a chance students will gain responsibility. But there is a risk students get disengaged."

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