Older people also face student loan debt burden with payments looming
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Student loan interest charges kick in this month after a hiatus of more than three years in response to the pandemic. And loan payments will restart next month, in October. Among the people who borrowed to pay for their college education is a group largely overlooked in policy debates: student loan borrowers who still are paying back at age 60 and older.
Marketplace’s senior economics contributor Chris Farrell has been looking into what it means that a substantial amount of student loan debt is held by older borrowers. He spoke with “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio; the following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: We’re always talking about the value of education. But, boy, it’s cast in a new light when you think about 60-year-olds and older still paying back student loans. How many are we talking about?
Chris Farrell: There are about 3.5 million Americans 60 years and older. And they owe more than $125 billion in student loans. And the number of borrowers among this 60-plus age cohort, it’s risen sixfold since 2004. In their outstanding debt, it increased 19-fold. And I just find these really startling numbers. Look, a lot of attention has been paid to the student loan debt burden on young graduates. Less attention has been paid to the risks that debt holds for borrowers who are nearing their retirement years or are in retirement.
Brancaccio: But wait, Chris, who are we talking about? People who borrowed for their kids, or maybe in some cases for grandkids, or something?
Farrell: That’s what I assumed, and I was wrong. There’s a recent detailed examination of student loans among older Americans by two policy analysts at the New America think tank. And what they found is that a majority of the debt was taken on to fund the older person’s education. Now, many loans were taken out years ago. And for a variety of reasons, the borrowers haven’t managed to pay it off.
Brancaccio: With this very fast pace of change for, for instance, technology, everyone’s always bugging us to get retrained into new careers so we can use the stuff. Sometimes we might pay for some education, and it leads to good things for our paychecks. But that’s not the case for everyone, I would assume.
Farrell: Yeah, I mean, to be clear, look: College, it’s a good investment for many people. But, as you say, David, not everyone. And the policy analysts at New America note that the older people carrying student loans, they’re disproportionately women and people of color. And these borrowers did not get the financial return on investment from their education. They may not have graduated, maybe they went to a predatory for-profit school. And because of interruptions and payments, in many cases, interest is added to the principal of the loan, and interest is then charged on the higher balance.
Brancaccio: Yeah, so the miracle of compounding, but in reverse. Has anyone noticed this in Washington or state capitals? Is there a role for public policy here and rethinking some of this?
Farrell: I think there is. I mean, there have been some reforms in recent years that should limit, in the future, so much debt accruing over the years. And the administration’s new income-driven repayment plan, which goes by the acronym SAVE, it could help out a good number of older borrowers. But, David — and I know this is controversial — but there’s a strong case for targeting student loan forgiveness for those near or in retirement who are living on low and unstable incomes.
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