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Brain Development, College Planning, and a Lifetime of Student Debt

Scientists have found that brain development isn’t nearly finished by age 18. Should this impact how we treat borrowers and student loans?

Written By: Michael P. Lux, Esq.


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In the United States, the line separating children from adults is pretty clear.

Other than a couple of notable exceptions, someone who is 18 has the full rights and responsibilities of an adult.

Why do we draw this line at 18? Is there that much difference between a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old?

Today we will dig into what it means to be an adult and examine how changing the definition of adult might impact college and student debt in the United States.

The Human Brain at 18

The consensus of the scientific community is that the teenage brain — even at age 18 — is still in development.

Most notably, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t reach maturity until about age 25. This is significant because the prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain used for rational thought. Teens often process information with their amygdala, the emotional part of the brain.

Put simply, the average 20-year-old doesn’t have the ability of an average 30-year-old to make rational decisions. Clearly, there are exceptions to this general observation, but there is a mountain of evidence to suggest that brains are not fully developed at 18.

The Implications for Student Loans

Borrowing money for school needs to be a rational decision. Someone considering a college or debt needs to consider the potential cost of school vs. the benefits. Even in the best of circumstances, the decisions made in planning and paying for college are complex.

However, many high school seniors don’t engage in this analysis. They look at things from the perspective of attending their “dream” school. They might not find it fair that a classmate has opportunities that they don’t. That teenager might decide they deserve to go to the expensive school, even if it isn’t affordable or a wise decision.

This sort of decision-making happens when someone doesn’t have a fully developed prefrontal cortex. Instead of engaging in rational thought, they use the amygdala and make and make an emotional decision.

The Student Loan Significance: This analysis is critical in student loans because borrowers can be shackled to this debt for life. Those who face financial hardships often discover that student loan rules are far more harsh than credit card or mortgage debt.

Additionally, student debt is typically incurred at a much younger age than most credit card, mortgage, or other consumer debts.

In Defense of Making 18 the Age of Maturity

The science on aging isn’t clear on an exact age or definition of maturity.

On one hand, this makes sense. Just as people grow at different rates, brains mature at different rates.

On the other hand, this presents a significant issue. How do we define an adult for the purposes of signing a student loan contract? What happens if the age gets moved to 25?

If an 18-year-old student can’t sign up for a student loan, it might mean they can’t attend college. Are we doing more harm than good if we change the age-based rules?

Turning 18 also provides a clear, bright line. Some people may reach maturity before, others after, but everyone is on notice that things change at 18.

Additionally, college presents an opportunity for growth. Even if not fully mature, an 18-year-old leaving home for the first time has the chance to make mistakes, learn, and grow. Precluding someone from attending college because they are not fully mature could be a step backward.

Protecting Vulnerable Populations

The most helpful change might be the simple recognition that people are still learning, growing, and evolving at age 18.

It doesn’t mean they can’t make adult decisions. Instead, it means they are a more vulnerable segment of our population.

Think about all of the tools and resources that we have available for seniors. As a society, we recognize that some people have declining cognitive abilities beyond a certain age. Because of this, we create policies and tools to protect seniors from abuse. Things are far from perfect on this front, but it is better than doing nothing and leaving seniors to fend for themselves.

If an 18-year-old is vulnerable to making a decision based on emotion rather than reason, we must find a way to protect this age group from potential abuse.

Rethinking Bankruptcy and College Recruitment

If a potential student doesn’t have a fully-developed prefrontal cortex, they may be especially susceptible to recruitment based on emotion. Some for-profit colleges have a well-documented history of “pain points” recruitment — these schools used fear and pain to induce students to enroll.

Maybe the answer is to prohibit colleges from making an emotional appeal to encourage students to enroll. Perhaps we should penalize the schools that use these tactics if they lead to lousy student outcomes.

Along the same lines, we should reconsider how student debt gets handled in bankruptcy.

The history of student loans in bankruptcy is particularly cruel if we consider it from the perspective of not-yet-mature students who made decisions with devastating consequences. Recent policy changes show how easy it would be to help out former students who made ill-advised borrowing decisions.

The Constitutional Basis for Treating People Differently by Age

Most people know that someone who is 18 has their right to vote guaranteed by the 26th Amendment to the Consitution.

However, this isn’t the only mention of age in the Constitution. Article I of the Constitution says that an individual must be 25 to serve in the House of Representatives and 30 to serve in the Senate. Article II states that someone must be at least 35 to become President.

The founders recognized that people lacked the maturity for certain offices until far beyond the age of 18.

It’s time we all started thinking differently about the maturity of the average student loan borrower.

How to Protect Students Right Now

Public policy changes don’t happen overnight, but there are many steps that parents and advisors can take to help the young people in their lives.

Telling an 18-year-old that they are too young, emotional, or immature will probably only lead to an emotional response.

However, you can guide them through the rational thoughts necessary to pick a college and pay for an education.

Similarly, if a school is making an emotional plea to a student, you can point out that they are trying to manipulate the student into making an irrational decision.

There are no easy answers to this issue, but if we ask the tough questions, we can improve things for all.

About the Author

Student loan expert Michael Lux is a licensed attorney and the founder of The Student Loan Sherpa. He has helped borrowers navigate life with student debt since 2013.

Insight from Michael has been featured in US News & World Report, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other online and print publications.

Michael is available for speaking engagements and to respond to press inquiries.

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