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Student loan debt is most often associated with younger borrowers, but student loan repayment can follow borrowers well beyond their 20s. The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that over 9 million adults age 50 and older are still paying off federal student loan debt — about 20 percent of all federal student loan borrowers. This is up from roughly 17 percent of federal borrowers in 2018, meaning older Americans are shouldering student loan debt at an increasing rate.
Why older Americans have rising student loan debt
The cost of college has risen significantly in recent years. The cost of public universities in the U.S. has more than tripled since the 1980s after accounting for inflation. This, coupled with an increased cost of living, means that more adults may need student loans to finance their degrees. While National Center for Education Statistics data shows that enrollment for adults over 35 dipped from 3.45 million in 2011 to 2.47 million in 2021, enrollment is projected to rise to 2.76 million by 2031.
Even if older adults aren’t returning to school themselves, increased college costs mean that many are taking out loans to help their children or grandchildren pay for an education. For reference, dependent undergraduate students can take out a maximum of $5,500 in federal student loans in their first year of college, which falls short of College Board’s projected annual student budgets: $27,940 for in-state students, $45,240 for out-of-state students and $57,570 for private school students.
Even after scholarships and grants are accounted for, parents may take on debt to help their children bridge that gap through parent PLUS loans or co-signed private student loans.
Finally, borrowers carrying student loan debt for years may suffer from interest accrual. Borrowers who have skipped payments or only paid their interest charges each month are susceptible to perpetual student loan debt, with balances growing over time as interest compounds.
What to consider before taking out student loans as an older adult
Younger borrowers expect to enjoy income growth throughout their careers. Older borrowers often experience a decrease in overall income and income variety, especially the closer they come to retirement. For many retirees, Social Security may be their only source of regular income. Older borrowers also tend to carry additional debts compared to younger borrowers, including mortgages and auto loans.
If going to college — or funding someone else’s education — is something you want to spend your retirement income on, assess your finances to make sure you have the financial margin to take on that extra debt. A higher level of risk is involved for older adults who can’t make their payments. Retirees who default on a federal student loan may have their Social Security garnished to offset the delinquent payments.
How to pay for college without student loans
Despite the risks, student loan debt is the only way many in the U.S. can afford a college education. Properly managed, it can be a worthwhile investment. However, a student loan isn’t your only option for financing a college education. There are plenty of ways to fund a degree that won’t cut into your hard-earned retirement fund.
Many regard scholarships and grants as the best way to pay for college. Unlike loans, they don’t need to be repaid, and there are thousands of options. A scholarship search engine can help you narrow down awards by specific criteria, like application details or eligibility requirements.
Schools may also offer scholarships based on merit — and some may offer legacy scholarships for children of alumni.
A 529 plan is a special savings plan designed to help parents and grandparents save for education expenses. Contributions to these plans earn interest tax-free, and withdrawals are also free as long as they’re used for academic expenses.
Both parents and grandparents can contribute to a student’s 529 plan. Each individual may contribute up to $16,000 per beneficiary annually without filing an extra form with the IRS.
Employee tuition reimbursement programs
Some companies will reimburse tuition costs for their employees upon course completion as an added benefit to promote retention. Although this may come with some strings attached, such as staying with the company for a specified period, it can significantly reduce college costs. If you’re unsure whether your company offers this benefit, you can find out by contacting human resources.
How to pay off student loans
Whether you’re struggling to repay a loan in your name or a loan you’ve co-signed, don’t lose hope; there are several strategies you can use to enjoy your retirement and streamline your debt:
- Income-driven repayment plan: If you’ve taken out federal student loans, you may enroll in an income-driven repayment plan, which calculates a monthly payment based on your income and family size. These plans typically last 20 to 25 years.
- Public Service Loan Forgiveness: Borrowers with federal student loan debt may be able to enroll in Public Service Loan Forgiveness, a benefit offered to public service employees. If you work full-time for a nonprofit or government agency, your loan balance could be forgiven after 10 years of payments.
- Refinancing: Both federal and private borrowers have the option to refinance their loans with a private lender. The process will eliminate any previously available federal benefits, but it could allow borrowers to receive a lower rate or monthly payment.