If Thelma Richards continues to pay $317 a month, every month, for the foreseeable future, she’ll pay off her student loans by the year 2038. The problem is, by then she’ll be 87 years old. “I don’t think I’m going to live that long,” she says, laughing. “I’m not joking!”
Richards, 65, who lives in Little Falls, N.Y., fits the profile of a growing number of older Americans, who are now more likely than ever to hold student debt well into retirement age. According to a January report from the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a federal watchdog agency, the number of Americans age 60 and older carrying student debt quadrupled in the past decade. They are now the fastest-growing group of student borrowers and owe, on average, $23,500, up from $12,000 in 2005. Altogether, the over-60 set now carries $66.7 billion in student debt.
It’s a trend that has policymakers wringing their hands. “Washington really needs to wake up to the problem,” said Rohit Chopra, a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America. The student-loan crisis “is not just a slow drag on millions of households who might otherwise be saving for a down payment on a home,” he says. “It’s preventing people from living with dignity in retirement.”
The rapid rise in older Americans taking on student loans has two main causes. The first is that parents and grandparents are co-signing loans to support the younger generation. The second is that older Americans are increasingly taking student loans for themselves. With blue collar jobs dwindling, people in their 40s and 50s are going back to school to acquire new skills or buff their résumés. Richards, for example, who worked as a waitress while raising three kids as a single mom, went back to college in her 40s to earn a degree in occupational therapy. While her new profession yields a higher income and health care benefits, it has also left her with a lifetime of debt. In 2005, her consolidated loans tallied roughly $42,000, a sum she says she has since paid down to about $26,000.
Both trends leave older borrowers in a bind. Because they have less time in the workforce and are more likely to become ill, they are often in a weaker position to pay back loans. Making monthly payments on a fixed income is also more difficult than it is for younger borrowers, whose incomes are more likely to grow. According to the CFPB report, more than a third of those age 60 and older with student debt had forgone medical care, including prescription drugs, to afford their loan payments. In 2015, nearly 40% of borrowers over 65 were in default, which means the government can garnish their tax refunds and Social Security benefits to service payments. From 2002 to 2015, the number of people 50 or older whose Social Security checks were garnished increased by more than 400%, according to a 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office. And there’s no way out: if someone dies with student debt, the balance is skimmed off his remaining assets.
While the government occasionally discharges federal loans in cases of financial hardship or permanent disability, consumer advocates say it’s an uphill battle that often requires years of paperwork. Chopra says a better solution is to reform the way student-loan servicers operate. Older borrowers should be informed of affordable repayment options, he says, and Social Security benefits should be protected, particularly if a borrower’s income is already below the poverty line. Robert Farrington, the founder of the website the College Investor, says one main piece of advice for older borrowers is simply to avoid any loan that isn’t repayable in 10 years. “Remember,” he says, “if you don’t pay, they’ll come after you.”
This appears in the February 20, 2017 issue of TIME.