That even seniors remain saddled with student loans highlights what a growing chorus of lawmakers, economists and financial experts say has become a central conflict in the nation’s higher education system: The long-touted benefits of a college degree are being diluted by rising tuition rates and the longevity of debt.
Some of these older Americans are still grappling with their first wave of student loans, while others took on new debt when they returned to school later in life in hopes of becoming more competitive in the labor force. Many have co-signed for loans with their children or grandchildren to help them afford ballooning tuition.
The recent recession exacerbated this problem, making it harder for older Americans — or the youths they are supporting in school — to get good-paying jobs. And unlike other debts, student loans cannot be shed in bankruptcy. As a result, some older Americans have found that a college degree led not to a prosperous career but instead to a lifetime under the shadow of debt.
“A student loan can be a debt that’s kind of like a ball and chain that you can drag to the grave,” said William E. Brewer, president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys. “You can unhook it when they lay you in the coffin.”
Sandy Barnett, 58, of Illinois thought she was doing the right thing when she decided to pursue a master’s degree in clinical psychology in the late 1980s. She had worked her way through college but said she took out a loan of about $21,000 to pay for graduate school so she would have more time to focus on her studies.
But even after earning her master’s, Barnett struggled to find a job that paid more than $25,000 a year and soon fell behind on her payments. She suffered through a layoff, a stretch of unemployment and the death of her husband — while her student loan ballooned to roughly $54,000.
Barnett filed for bankruptcy in 2005, but she couldn’t get out from under her student loan debt. She said a collection agency began garnishing the wages from her full-time job as a customer service representative a year ago, and now money is so tight that she must choose between buying gas and buying food. An air conditioner for her mobile home is an unimaginable luxury.
“I shake my head every day at the thought that I’m working for nothing,” Barnett said. “It’s really a black hole because there’s no end in sight.”
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