Student debt: The burden on seniors

Senior citizens work on their laptop computers during a class in Des Plaines, Ill.

When we talk about student debt, I bet you're picturing 20 or maybe 30-something types laboring under this burden. But consider this: According to the Federal Reserve, Americans 60 years old and up owe more than $43 billion in student loans. In fact, the number of 60 year old-plus borrowers is at an all-time high: 2.2 million. Some of them, of course, took that money out to help their kids get through college. But many borrowed late in life, for their own reasons.

Take Steven Manriquez, a 65-year-old Marine veteran and retired police officer (full disclosure: he's the father-in-law of Marketplace freelance producer Candace). A few years ago, Steven decided to go back to college to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology and he's now in a master's program. He hopes to help veterans diagnosed with PTSD. Currently, his loans add up to more than $55,000.

Manriquez retired in 2002, sat around for eight years, and just decided one day to pursue a Master's degree. He has a son in college and a daughter heading to college a year for now.

"My son is in the Marine Corps Reserve, so he may be getting some help through the government that way. As for my daughter, I will probably end up footing that bill. I'm putting a little aside every month for my retirement and at least it will get her through the first year," says Manriquez.

When he has to start paying back student loans, he says his payment will be about $150-200 a month for about 10-20 years. Pursuing a Master's degree has been a dream of his.

"Me watching [my kids] and I said, you know what, if they can do it, I can do it," he says.

He offers this advice to seniors going back to school: "Upon graduation, make sure that you go back to work because the bill is there and I mean, like me, I'm going to spend a good six years getting my degree. And it would be a shame for me to all of a sudden not use that education or that degree for something."

About the author

In more than 20 years in public radio, Barbara Bogaev has served as the longtime guest host of NPR’s flagship program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, as well as host of APM’s news and culture magazine, Weekend America and the weekly national documentary series, Soundprint.
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I quit my job because I knew that layoffs were coming, and that the recession was only going to get worse. I went back to school. I took out student loans to pay for two years of school and associated expenses. I was 51 when I finished my program. I did have the savings to cover tuition and expenses, but the loan rates were low enough that it made more sense to take out the loans.

Yes, I did choose a field where I knew I could find employment, and I did. I knew that the field paid more than I had been earning. I didn't have to defer payments on my student loans or ask for a reduced payment. I've done okay.

I should also add that I chose a field that I knew I'd at least like, perhaps love. I'm lucky that my interests are such that I love doing something that pays what I consider a decent salary.

Wow. Forgive me but this puts truth to the idiom: there is no fool like an old fool. Youth have the excuse of inexperience but as we age some degree of common sense should have evolved. A little homework would have told Mr.Manriquez and gcraycroft [whose comment herein] that the investment cost far exceeds any possible payout.

This piece really caught my attention. I was laid off from my job at a DoD contractor at the age of 56 in 2007 and, after hemming and hawing around for a couple of years, I thought I'd better try to make myself more marketable by getting a degree.
I had a part-time job delivering pizzas (that turned into my nearly full-time job) so I wasn't completely unemployed but it did little to allow me to save for retirement. I was interested in computers and tech stuff so I went after an online degree in Web Graphics Design at DeVry.
It seemed to be a perfect fit for me and in three years, I had an Associate's Degree to add to my resume. Finding a full-time job using that degree has yet to happen but I have been able to pick up freelance work (one client so far).
I had accumulated over $40,000 in student loan debt and have started repaying that. Luckily, my wife works, I continue the pizza job, and I applied for early Social Security benefits (I am now 62, soon to be 63) so things are under control. The loan payments are tied to my monthly income and so far, there have been no problems.
Am I concerned about the future and my ability to find work and repay the loan? Sure but we take each day as it comes and I network a lot through LinkedIn and through people that I know trying to build connections. I like the variety and the challenge and I still a have a little time to spend with friends and family. I know that, even after all the things that have happened since getting laid off, I am better off than a lot of folks so I can't complain.
When life hands you lemons, you can either make lemonade or plant the seeds and start an orchard.

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