‘Praying that my health holds out’: Many senior citizens expect to die with college loan debts
Marjorie Sener was still in her 20s when she took out a loan for about $5,000 to get some college credits she hoped would eventually add up to a bachelor’s degree.
That goal was thwarted when her partner became ill.
“The burden of our living expenses fell on me,” said Sener, who lives in the Dallas suburbs. “I devoted all of my resources to keeping our heads above water.”
But while Sener never got her degree, that student loan kept growing, fattened by compounding interest.
Now, at 74, she owes more than $55,000, or 10 times what she originally borrowed, and has put off any hope of retiring. Sener still works, as a legal secretary, juggling her student loan debt with other expenses, including medical costs from recent cancer treatments.
Some 114,000 Americans have had their Social Security garnished because they couldn’t make their student loan repayments.
“My payments are as small as I can make them, since I cannot repay the full amount,” she said. “My financial goals are to be able to pay my rent, afford my car and medical bills and hopefully be able to provide for my own funeral expenses.”
She isn’t joking. Sener expects to never get rid of her student loan obligation.
“The fact is, I’ll never be able to pay the full debt,” she said. “It’s just something that binds my life.”
And the lives of a rising number of other older Americans.
The number of people age 60 and older who still have student loan debt has sextupled since 2004, and the amount they owe is up 19-fold, the think tank New America reports; there are now 3.5 million of them, who collectively owe more than $125 billion in student loans.
This is not, by and large, debt that parents assumed to send their kids to college. For three-quarters of federal borrowers 65 and older, it’s money they borrowed for their own educations and have been paying off for decades the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, found.
That’s a situation about to get much worse. More people with even larger student loan debt are aging into retirement just as the Biden administration’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 of this debt for recipients with incomes under $125,000 has been blocked by the Supreme Court and the Covid-19 pause in repayments ends.
“A lot of people think of student debt as being a young people’s issue. But when you segment the population by age, the people with the fastest-growing debt are older,” said Thomas Gokey, co-founder of the activist organization the Debt Collective.
Many older Americans with student loan debt face retirement with less money than their classmates who didn’t have to borrow, according to researchers from the Federal Reserve. And as they try to pay off what they owe, they’re at the mercy of a patchwork of private companies assembled by the Department of Education to service loans, which often fail to provide information about payment plans tied to income and other ways to manage the debt.
“They’ve been failed by multiple systems,” said Sarah Sattelmeyer, New America’s project director for education, opportunity and mobility. “Our higher education system hasn’t served them well. And the student loan repayment system also doesn’t serve them well.”
It’s not that older borrowers with debt don’t want to pay it back. Many say they simply can’t afford to, New America found in interviews with focus groups.
The number of people age 60 and older who still have student loan debt has sextupled since 2004 to 3.5 million, and the amount they owe is up 19-fold to $125 billion.
Older Americans with student loan debt take second jobs, delay retirement, are less likely to own their own homes and suffer low credit scores. More than 60 percent say they don’t have enough savings to cover their expenses for three months in an emergency, New America found. Nine percent say their student loan debt has forced them to forgo medical care, according to a survey by AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons.
“This is life and death for people. This is the difference between being able to pay to eat, to make rent, to pay a mortgage,” Gokey said.
Even before the pandemic, nearly twice as many older borrowers as younger borrowers said that they were behind on repaying their student loans.
That can lead to the most dire consequence for older borrowers: having their Social Security benefits garnished, which is triggered when a loan has been delinquent for 270 days. Everything above $750 that a retiree receives each month from Social Security, or 15 percent of the benefit — whichever is lower — can be withheld and applied to the debt.
Some 114,000 Americans have had their Social Security garnished because they couldn’t make their student loan repayments, according to the most recent available figures.
That drives many older borrowers into poverty, the GAO reports.
“Absent the student debt, they might have had a decent income,” said Gokey. “They didn’t do anything wrong. But they shouldn’t have had this debt.”
Yet even as money from their Social Security benefits is diverted to repay their loans, some see their balances continue to increase, thanks to interest, the GAO found.
“People get caught in default as this kind of quicksand,” Sattelmeyer said.
It isn’t only older Americans with lower incomes who are weighted down by student loan debt. Carolina Rodriguez, director of the Education Debt Consumer Assistance Program at the Community Service Society of New York, said her clients range from people living in homeless shelters to judges.
“We are at another level of crisis,” she said.
Take Charles Earl. He spent eight years in the 1990s getting a doctoral degree in computer science at the University of Chicago, from which he graduated with $70,000 of student loan debt. Now, at 61, he owes $136,000, and his son is starting college.
“I guess we’ll make it work somehow. I don’t really know how,” said Earl, who lives in Decatur, Georgia, and works as a software developer. “We want to make sure he doesn’t have to go through this. I’ve learned that lesson.”
Thanks in large part to his student loan debt, Earl has no immediate plans to retire, he said. “It’s most likely that I’m going to be working for the next 10 years and praying that my health holds out.”
Many more Americans appear to be headed for this same fate. The proportion who have student loan debt continues to increase, with more borrowers ages 35 to 61 holding debt than those who are 62 and older, the Boston College Center for Retirement Research estimates.
“This is becoming potentially a bigger problem,” said Siyan Liu, a Center for Retirement Research economist.
Biden’s loan-forgiveness plan would have erased the student loan debt of 20 million Americans and reduced it for another 20 million. Instead, interest on loan payments will resume Sept. 1 for all loan holders after the three-year pandemic pause, and the bills will begin to become due again in October for borrowers of all ages.
“People are already coming to us and saying, ‘We can’t pay it,’ ” Gokey said.
About one in five borrowers will, in fact, struggle to make their payments, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A survey of consumers by Morgan Stanley put the number even higher, at one in three, while nearly four in 10 said they will need to cut their other expenses to afford their payments.
“I am afraid that among the highest potential for delinquency and default is going to be this group,” Rodriguez said of older borrowers.
“I can’t imagine retiring. I will have to work for the rest of my life.”
Mary Donahue, a 61-year-old student loan holder
There are some ways to escape this, depending on the type of the original loan, the National Consumer Law Center advises.
Borrowers with Federal Family Education or Perkins loans can consolidate them into direct loans, then tie the payments to their income, for example; these so-called income-driven or income-contingent repayment plans allow the loans to be canceled after 20 or 25 years, depending on the circumstances.
Even that is little consolation to Mary Donahue, a social worker in private practice in Richmond, Virginia, who has converted her loans into income-contingent repayment and will have them forgiven in 2037. She’ll be nearly 76 by then, however, and will have paid $159,033 on her loans; the principal was about $109,000.
“It feels very helpless,” said Donahue, now 61. “I can’t imagine retiring. I will have to work for the rest of my life. The only positive thing is that my debt will not be left to my children.”
There are some ways out of this. People who believe they were misled by recruiters or went to colleges and universities that closed before they finished a degree can petition for their debt to be forgiven. Or loan holders can apply for “total and permanent disability” discharges, a process that has been slightly simplified over the last few years for veterans and others. A limited program called Fresh Start, which will be available for one year starting in September, will give borrowers who defaulted a chance to catch up on their payments and return their loans to good standing.
There are other consequences to this problem. At a time when college enrollment is already plummeting, said Sattelmeyer, “something we heard a lot in our focus groups is that when someone had a negative experience with their college loans, they were more likely to tell younger generations that higher education wasn’t worth it.”
This story about seniors with student loan debt was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.