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 roughly 9 million adults age 50 and older are still actively paying off federal student loan debt — almost 20 percent of all federal student loan borrowers. This is up from just 16 percent of federal borrowers in 2017, 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; data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the cost of public universities in the U.S. has tripled since 1980, after accounting for inflation. This, coupled with an increased cost of living, means that a greater number of adults may need student loans to finance their degree. While National Center for Education Statistics data shows that enrollment for adults over the age of 35 dipped from 3.45 million in 2011 to 2.55 million in 2019, enrollment is projected to rise to 3.01 million by 2030.

Even if older adults aren’t returning to school themselves, increased college costs means 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: $27,330 for in-state students, $44,150 for out-of-state students and $55,800 for private school students.

Even after scholarships and grants are accounted for, parents may decide to take on debt to help their children bridge that gap, either in the form of parent PLUS loans or co-signed private student loans.

Finally, borrowers who have been carrying their own student loan debt for years may be suffering from interest accrual. Borrowers who have skipped payments or only paid down their interest charges each month are susceptible to perpetual student loan debt, with balances even 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 over the course of their career. Older borrowers most often experience a decrease in overall income and income variety, especially the closer they come to retirement. For a majority of retirees, Social Security may be their only source of regular income. Older borrowers also tend to carry additional debts as 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. There’s a higher level of risk 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 that 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 to choose from. A scholarship search engine can help you narrow down awards by specific criteria, like application details or eligibility requirements.

Schools may also offer their own scholarships based on merit — and some may offer legacy scholarships for children of alumni.

529 plan

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 per year without filing an extra form with the IRS.

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 choose to 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, which is a benefit offered to public service employees. As long as you work full time for a nonprofit or government agency, you could have your loan balance 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 federal benefits previously available, but it could allow borrowers to receive a lower rate or a lower monthly payment.