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As everyone is aware from the news, student loan debt is an enormous problem in this country. A whopping 44 million people have incurred a total of $1.5 trillion in debt.  And yes, you read correctly, that’s trillion with a T! Most people associate this crisis with young people in their 20s and 30s. However, there is a rapidly growing population of older Americans who are being crippled by student loan debt. Surprising as it may sound, student loan debt is hurting seniors at an alarming rate.

Now, you are probably saying to yourself, how can that be? How is it possible that people 60+ have not paid back debt incurred in their 20s? First, the student loan debt drowning older Americans was not incurred during their 20s. Seniors with debt tend to be:

1) individuals who took out or cosigned loans to help finance their child or grandchild’s college education, or

2) people who went back to school during the Great Recession in 2008 to improve their marketability for future employers.

These two factors have led to financial hardship on senior citizens.

For example, the Wall Street Journal reported that people age 60+ owe $86 billion in student loan debt, and that between 2010 and 2017, this group’s student loan debt rose by 161 percent. Richard Cordray, former director of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB), said, “It is alarming that older Americans [age 60+] are the fastest growing segment of student loan borrowers…We are concerned that student loans are contributing to financial insecurity for many older Americans.” According to a report issued by CFPB during the Obama administration, an increasing number of seniors are seeing their Social Security benefits taken to pay back student loan debts, despite this being their only income every month.  In addition, the report states that the increasing debt on the backs of older Americans has caused them to save less for retirement.

Recently, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) reported about Kevin and Tonya Bower from Kelso, Washington.  They took out $75,000 in student loans to pay for their daughter’s college education, as well as their own. They both returned to college during their 40s because of the negative impact the Great Recession had on their careers. Kevin returned to public school to get a bachelor’s degree in business, organizational management and leadership, while Tonya returned to school for a two-year degree in web and graphic design. Although the couple refinanced their loans, they have been forced to reduce their 401(k) contributions due to their $700 monthly loan payments.  

Obviously, the government’s ability to garnish your Social Security if you are delinquent on your federal student loans is problematic for seniors who are financially struggling. Thankfully, Senators Rob Wyden and Sherrod Brown have introduced legislation that would end the federal government’s practice of taking away Social Security benefits to pay back student loan debt. They feel that Social Security should not be used as a vehicle to pay back student loans. Senator Brown said, “Americans work hard to earn their Social Security and we cannot allow it to be stolen away by student debt…instead of going after seniors and the disabled, the government should be working to address the skyrocketing cost of higher education and provide Americans with relief from the crushing levels of student debt.” When a senior’s Social Security benefits are partially seized by the government, the effect can be particularly painful if the senior was unable to personally save for retirement. 

Some people might argue that older Americans shouldn’t be taking out loans for their children and grandchildren to attend college. Why can’t these kids just attend public school?  Unfortunately, according to U.S. News & World Report, even public colleges for in-state residents cost around $40,000 for a four-year education.  For families living paycheck to paycheck, saving up for even state school can be a daunting challenge. 

Education, no matter the age of the student, should not come with debt that makes a real retirement unattainable.  Government at all levels should be doing more to ensure that older Americans can provide education for themselves and their family without risking their golden years. 


Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Assistant Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School.  Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.​​