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Student Loans and the Parents' Burden

Not only the young are being crushed by student loan debt; so are their parents

A Page-One article in yesterday's New York Times by Tamar Lewin reminds us of one way in which Baby Boomers are more like Millennials than people realize — people over 50 carry almost as big a student loan burden as do twenty-somethings.

It's not that they took out loans for their own college degrees and are taking forever to pay them off; it's that they took out loans for their kids' education, and are finding themselves as trapped and burdened by the payoff as their children are.

"For the most part, these parents did well enough through midlife to take on sizable loans," writes Lewin, "but some have since fallen on tough times because of the recession, health problems, job loss or lives that took a sudden hard turn. And unlike the angry students who have recently taken to the streets to protest their indebtedness, most of these parents are too ashamed to draw attention to themselves."

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The number of sixtysomethings carrying student loan debt has tripled since 2005, Lewin writes. And almost 10 percent of them (compared to 6 percent in 2005) were more than three months in arrears.

A similar finding was the subject six months ago of a report on NPR. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that SIX MILLION people over 50 were still carrying student loan debt, either because they were still paying off their own loans (usually because they went back to school at advanced ages) or were paying off loans for which they co-signed on behalf of their children or even grandchildren. This came to a total of $36 billion in student loans for the over-50 population, many of whom (the report didn’t specify exactly how many) were in default.

Apparently debt collectors are knocking on the doors of these older debtors and Social Security checks are being garnished. And just as with younger people, they get no relief by declaring bankruptcy; in general, even for the officially bankrupt, student loans still have to be paid.

Not surprisingly, the situation can lead to terrible strains in the parent-adult child relationship. As Lewin put it in yesterday's Times article,

Parents and students alike say parental debt can be the uncomfortable, unmentionable elephant in the room. Many parents feel they have not fulfilled a basic obligation, while others quietly resent that their children’s education has landed the family in such difficult territory.

This might be the worst of it, the way the black cloud of debt twists a relationship that's supposed to be one of the highlights of middle and old age -- the chance to bask in your child's success and to feel as though the hardest work of parenting is done. "The whole idea was for her to get a college education so she can succeed in life," one mother, in default on the $18,000 loan she took out for her daughter's education and without a job or B.A. of her own, told Lewin. "It is hard enough [for my daughter] just to do that without being burdened with her mother’s welfare, like I was her child.”

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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