60 and Still Not Out of Student Loan Debt: Seniors Facing $36 Billion in College Loans

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Many seniors are still paying student loan bills.

Student loan debt is usually thought of as a young person’s problem. Those who earned their degrees in 2010 graduated with what was then a highest-ever average of $25,250 in student loans, and considering that education costs are rising, the jobs market is especially bad for young people, and parents feel less able to help pay for their kids’ college nowadays, student loan debt can only get bigger. It’s not hard to imagine a future in which an alarming number of Americans still aren’t out of student loan debt even as they become old enough to collect Social Security.

Actually, that future is already here. Using data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a Washington Post story focuses on how student loans are placing a burden not just on America’s young—nothing new there—but on America’s seniors as well.

The data indicates Americans ages 60 and over collectively owe $36 billion in student loans. About 5% of the $85 billion delinquent student loans in the U.S. is owed by borrowers ages 60 and over, and another 12% of the total is the responsibility of Americans ages 50 to 59. In some of these delinquent situations, Social Security checks are garnished in order to pay off student loans.

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How does one get to an age in which you could see your grandchildren graduate from college—with hefty loans, no doubt—while still being on the hook for loans yourself? While some seniors have student loan debt lingering from their original degree earned in their 20s, they could also be burdened with debts related to higher-ed degrees pursued later in life, or perhaps because they co-signed for their children’s or grandchildren’s loans.

In any event, one thing seniors and young people have in common is that they both face an especially challenging jobs market, making it harder than ever to get student loans paid off. The unemployment rate among America’s recent grads remains high enough to force the “Boomerang” generation to live with their parents, while SmartMoney reports that workers ages 55 and over who are laid off are unemployed for an average of 53.6 weeks, compared to just 39.4 weeks for those 54 and under.

At the same time, older Americans are increasingly finding it necessary to keep working—because their nest eggs and home values took a beating during the Great Recession, and/or because they still need to pay off credit cards, mortgages, student loans, and other debt. In 2001, just 13% of Americans ages 65 and over were employed; that figure ballooned to 18% by last summer.

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But, whereas you can walk away from a home mortgage and credit card debt can be written off, there is no escaping student loan debt. As one expert tells the Washington Post:

“A student loan can be a debt that’s kind of like a ball and chain that you can drag to the grave,” said William E. Brewer, president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys. “You can unhook it when they lay you in the coffin.”

Considering that’s the case, it’s better (less horrible?) to be closer to the grave—closer to finally being freed from the burden of student loans.

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Unfortunately, it seems likely that more and more Americans will grow old still shackled with student loan debt. “This current generation of borrowers is going to be a generation of seniors who are burdened with debt,” Suzanne Martin, an attorney with Consumers Union, told the WaPo.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.