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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.

Related: ‘August surprise’: That college scholarship you earned might not count

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.

Older Americans who default on student loans can have their Social Security benefits garnished. That has now happened to at least 114,000 people. Credit: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

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.

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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.”

The Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 of debt for recipients with incomes under $125,000. That means student loan repayments are coming due again after a pandemic pause. Credit: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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.”

The University of Chicago, where Charles Earl graduated with a doctoral degree and $70,000 in student loan debt. Now, at 61, he owes $136,000. Credit: Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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.

 Related: In Japan, plummeting university enrollment forecasts what’s ahead for the U.S.

“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.

Related: Surprising patterns in who gets merit and need-based aid from colleges

“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.”

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Letters to the Editor

7 Letters

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  1. I am a 77 year old widow living in a Hud supported senior building. My only source of income is my Social Security check. I live from paycheck to paycheck. I received $23 a month in food stamps. Other groceries I need I have to buy. I have been having to pay medical bills in installments because I don’t have Medicaid anymore. They said for me to keep my card, I might get to use it in the future. Repayment of a $3 thousand dollars loan has , last I checked, had grown to over 10 thousand dollar. I am disabled with COPD and other old age ailments, but you have to be confirmed by a medical doctor to be a death’s door to be forgiven for the loan. I am so disappointed in my Country, especially the USSC. The Supreme Court have no mercy on it’s seniors.

  2. I am a 71 year old on a fixed income, I’m too disappointed in my country, why are we not worthy of the benevolence given to others outside of this country, billions of dollars are allocated to foreign countries everyday, for years, people that migrate to this country are welcomed here and are given whatever needed to settle here, some even come here take our jobs and send there untaxex revenues back to their own countries all the while we’re here in our own country living in poverty, some are homeless, destitute, by the hand of their own government. Why should we have to pay to make up for all the revenues that are leaving this country on a daily basis, who can we turn to for HELP certainly not our own, the poor, the middle class, the under privileged are the ones that are suffering the brunt of the self-inflicted crisis this country is in at this time. It’s time for the United States to pour back all the revenues being sent out to help others, and help their own right here in their own homeland. We are currently facing an imminent government shut down, who can this country call on to pull it out of this hole, who can this country call on to help pay its bills. Will it be the millions of seniors on fixed incomes who has been stuck with these predatory student loan debts for years and the way it’s going will be for the rest of their lives. Where your for these people United States American Citizens for life.

  3. I’m 64 yrs old and soon turning 65, well first of all all colleges and universities are the ones to blame. They have lied to a lot of people by making promises about their future. When the department of education found out of how many schools were FOR PROFIT, they did not hold them accountable instead the people who have attended these schools are paying a very high price and that is their lives. The department of education and the government will not help anyone, they are filling people’s head full of lies and worthless hopes.

  4. Okay, here’s the deal. We take out a loan. We are given the loan company via the education department. We pay on it and are getting ahead. The company sales our loan and we get to start over again. Like a car payment, you start off by paying mostly interest on the loan and then after awhile you actually start paying on the loan and less towards the interest. So now you have a bigger loan because your paying almost all interest again. This has happened 7 times to me before the pandemic. Now that loans are starting up again, guess what, yes, they sold my loan again. I get to start, once again, paying mostly interest. AND, since they started this thing with after 20 years your loan gets paid off. What most people do not know is , when your loan is sold to someone else, you get to start the 20 years over, again, each and every time your loan is sold. My loan started at $67,000 because I have my Masters in Teaching. When I was teaching you had to have a Master degree. Had I known this when I started teaching, who knows, I may not have gone into teaching. Now, in some places you don’t even need a bachelors in order to teach. Big difference in cost. Oh by the way, I have paid back $151,629.00 on my loan so far and I still owe $37,000. I am 70 years old and I am retired due to my health. I just found out I can pay only $0.00 a month but the interest does accumulate on the amount I still owe. Now, all of you complaining about us OLD people still owing—Think on this a few minutes. Our government has failed us. We will never pay our loans off because the government is making too much money off of us.

  5. This is a mess and it needs to be fixed!
    I have been faithfully paying monthly on my student loans. I waited a year into the
    Covid pandemic before applying to become eligible for the pause. I have paid over two decades on my loans. In 2014 Great Lakes student Loans decided to sell my loans to AES and Nelnet. This change meant I needed to make two monthly payments instead of one. I have made 164 payments but I was told I will receive credit for only 81. I am not eligible for loan forgiveness even though I have worked over forty years teaching in a low income qualified district. One thing everyone knows is that no one knows their death date. I chose to retire and to help take care of my first grandchild. My options as outlined by Morelia was to return to teaching, get a 30 hour a week job and continue to make monthly payments on 25k of student loan debt. In a handful of days I will be 73. It will take no less than ten years more if I use the money I now pay for my aging car toward retiring this debt. I have questions about the terms and policies created around approving the bill written by the Education Department. It states that borrowers must not be in default. It states that payments must be made while employed but it does not address payments made when a borrower enters retirement. It states that double payments would count but mine were not being considered. As I was on the phone listening to the agent name each month of payment not once did he mention the double payments I made in some months as I sacrificed in an effort to reduce the total balance due.
    Misleading, deceptive, predatory. I am angry and cannot accept that I will more than likely carry this burden to the grave.
    Finally, the Hechinger Report states fewer students will go to college refusing the ball and chain of student loans. Wake Up! This is the bone and root why there are not enough teachers in America’s schools all across the nation. Education cried out for highly qualified experienced teachers but you can’t get that if they don’t go on to get advanced degrees. No one will do that as long as pay remains chronically low and the additional burden of life long student loan debt. We are a “nation at risk”.

  6. I remember clearly assuming responsibility for my school loans after graduating from college in 1982. I busted my butt working multiple jobs in order to pay those off, sacrificing everything to make it work. It was my decision to go to college and my decision to accept a loan. My parents didn’t help with anything. So, why do people today think that they can walk away from their own decisions to accept money and never pay it back? These people are full of entitlements but never put in the hard work and sacrifice necessary to take care of themselves. I’m in favor of creating work camps for these folks to work off their loans. We have plenty of public service, road building, street cleaning, garbage collection and other jobs that need to be done. Waiting for Social Security to kick in is way too late and will only exacerbate the problem. Forced labor seems to fit the bill. If people can’t make their own efforts to take care of themselves then they have only their selves to blame. The government should step in to prevent this before it is too late.

  7. I was fed lies by a recruiter regarding completing my degree at a For Profit school. In the end, I did everything they asked of me when looking for a job at the age of 59. The result, I am now 65 having gone through the pandemic without a job. I have been applying daily and when I do get an interview, younger talent edges me out. Also, I moved around with my military spouse which has left me with a lot of jobs. I need the income not just for student loans, but for all the credit card debt and other loans I accumulated attending required in-person conferences and training which was separate from tuition.

    My husband and my family dedicated our lives to serving our country. It hurts me to see so much money going outside of this country to support other countries and not take care of its own. I didn’t want a handout, but when job offers are not there, how am I suppose to repay a loan with a small source of money from Social Security which I had to take to pay my credit cards which did not go on hold during the pandemic. I had no choice but to take it before my full retirement age.

    I deserve better, this country deserves better.

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