Skyrocketing Student Debt Haunts Older Americans in Retirement

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In a stark revelation, the burden of student loans isn’t solely resting on the shoulders of the young. Marjorie Sener, a 74-year-old legal secretary from Dallas, is emblematic of a growing demographic of older Americans who are still grappling with student loan debt. Originally borrowing a mere $5,000 in her 20s to pursue a college education, Sener now owes more than $55,000 due to compounding interest. Her circumstances, compounded by her partner’s illness and her own recent cancer treatments, have led to an uphill battle against a debt that has ballooned to ten times its original size.

The situation is far from unique to Sener. The number of Americans aged 60 and above with outstanding student loans has increased sixfold since 2004, according to a report by think tank New America. These 3.5 million individuals collectively owe more than $125 billion in student loans, an amount that has surged 19-fold over the same period. This isn’t mostly parental debt taken on for their children’s education, but rather, loans these individuals took for their own education and have been repaying for decades. As the Biden administration’s plan to forgive student debt for those with incomes under $125,000 is blocked by the Supreme Court, and the COVID-19 pause in repayments ends, the situation is set to worsen.

The Growing Burden of Student Loan Debt Among Older Americans

A Rising Trend

Marjorie Sener, a 74-year-old woman from the suburbs of Dallas, recounts how her initial loan of $5,000 for college credits has grown to a daunting $55,000 due to compounding interest. She is among a rapidly rising number of older Americans grappling with student loan debt. According to the think tank New America, the number of people aged 60 and above with student loan debt has increased sixfold since 2004. Today, 3.5 million people in this age bracket collectively owe over $125 billion in student loans.

The Fallout

The burden of student loan debt has had serious ramifications on the lives of older Americans. Many delay retirement, take up second jobs, or struggle with low credit scores. More than 60% of older Americans saddled with student loan debt don’t have enough savings to cover their expenses for three months in an emergency, according to New America. Approximately 9% have even had to forego medical care due to their student loan debt, as per a survey by AARP.

The Social Security Threat

In the most extreme cases, older borrowers who are behind on repaying their student loans face the dire consequence of having their Social Security benefits garnished. This is triggered when a loan has been delinquent for 270 days. To date, about 114,000 Americans have had their Social Security benefits garnished due to their inability to make student loan repayments, pushing many into poverty, as per the Government Accountability Office.

Looking Ahead

With the Biden administration’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 of student loan debt for recipients with incomes under $125,000 blocked by the Supreme Court and the COVID-19 pause in repayments ending, the situation is set to worsen. It’s estimated that one in five borrowers will struggle to make their payments, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.


The rising trend of older Americans grappling with student loan debt highlights the urgent need for loan reform. While there are some options for escaping this debt, such as consolidating Federal Family Education or Perkins loans into direct loans and tying the payments to income, these measures offer little consolation to those who find themselves nearing retirement age with a mountain of student loan debt. Without targeted solutions, the student loan debt crisis may not only continue to burden older generations but also deter younger ones from pursuing higher education.

Takeaway: The student loan debt crisis is not just a young person’s problem. As more older Americans find themselves burdened by student debt, the need for comprehensive loan reform becomes even more pressing. The financial and emotional toll of this debt is considerable, impacting retirement plans, credit scores, and even basic healthcare needs. Without significant changes, the ripple effects of this crisis are likely to impact future generations, possibly deterring them from pursuing higher education.

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