Student loan debt is not only a financial burden facing millennials. It's a big—and growing—problem for many older Americans who are near or in retirement.
Student loan balances among borrowers in their 50s or older made up 17 percent—or about $204 billion—of the nearly $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. last year, according to researchers at the New York Fed.
And while student loan balances have grown substantially for borrowers of all ages in the past decade, researchers say the fastest growth has been in total balances held by borrowers age 60 or older, which have increased nearly nine-fold since 2004.
"Student loan debt owed by older Americans includes debt borrowed or co-signed to help a child or grandchild pay for college as well as student loans for the borrower's own education," said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com, a college financial planning website. In financing their own education, "most of this debt is more recent...student loans borrowed when returning to college to finish an undergraduate degree, to switch to a new occupation or to obtain a graduate degree."
Older borrowers are also more likely to have defaulted on loans (meaning they fell behind or failed to make payments), and many incorrectly believe their balances can be discharged in bankruptcy. "Student loans are cancelled when a borrower dies, not when the borrower retires," reminds Kantrowitz.
In the fourth quarter of 2014, the average student loan balance for all borrowers was $26,700. If you're still carrying student loan debt as you approach retirement, here's what you need to do:
Don't default on your loan
Make your payments on time. If your loan goes into default, the government can garnish your wages, withhold your tax refund and even take a portion of your Social Security benefits.
From 2002 through 2013, the number of Americans whose Social Security benefits were offset to pay student loan debt increased five-fold from about 31,000 to 155,000, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Among those 65 and older, those whose benefits were offset grew from about 6,000 to about 36,000 over the same period.
Student loan borrowers who graduate, don't postpone payments, track their progress, and communicate with their servicer increase their chances of successful repayment, according to an analysis by Navient, a loan management and servicing company.
Explore income-driven repayment plans
If you qualify for an income-driven repayment plan, you can lower monthly payments on federal student loans, which may help keep you from going into default. You'll make payments based on 10 to 20 percent of your discretionary income. Any remaining balances on your federal loans will be forgiven after 20 to 25 years as long as you've made your payments on time. Go to the U.S. Department of Education's website to find out more about the three income-driven repayment plans ("Pay As You Earn", income-based, and income-contingent) for federal student loans.