At age 61, most people are thinking of retiring. Phyllis Young, of Wilton Manors, is focused on paying off her student loans that she took out more than two decades ago.
"I'm $39,000 still in the hole," Young said.
She's not alone.
Almost 2 million people at least 60 years old are still paying on student loans, according to a recent survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. That's more than 5 percent of the 37 million who have student loans, the study found.
Indeed, a third of all student loans are held by people at least 40 years old, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who reported he took out at least $100,000 in student loans to finish his undergraduate and law degrees.
"My parents worked very hard, but they were never able to save enough money to pay for my college," Rubio said in a speech last week. "And so I relied on grants and on loans, both for undergraduate education but especially for my law school education."
Total student loans — more than $1 trillion — now dwarf what Americans owe on their credit cards or auto loans.
Some of the oldest borrowers will end up paying their student debt until well past their retirement, including parents who co-signed loans for their children and workers who returned to school to retrain for new jobs.
"People don't understand how big an issue this is," said Howard Dvorkin, found of the Fort Lauderdale-based nonprofit Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, which helps people with their debt.
Dvorkin recommended older students save for their education and continue working full-time while attending college to avoid taking on so much in student loans that they become a burden later on.
A single mom, Young said she had no choice but to borrow. She attended a community college after graduating from high school. She went back to school at age 38 to earn a bachelor's degree to make more money to support her family — especially since she feared getting laid off. She graduated in the early 1990s with a degree in secondary education and taught for awhile before getting higher-paying jobs.
But her bachelor's came with $24,000 in loans that grew to $39,000 with penalties and interest added as she struggled to pay her loans when she was between jobs.
"They didn't give me any break," Young said.
She is now among the top 25 percent of student borrowers, who owe at least $28,000, according to the Federal Reserve study.
Today, she makes the equivalent of a car payment to help pay off her loans — about $180 a month in interest and $125 in principal.
"With that money, I would have a nice nest egg" for retirement, Young said.
The Federal Reserve Bank in New York is now watching over student loans because of a fear of U.S. student debt escalating into a new economic bust.
"We find that 27 percent of the borrowers have past-due balances," researchers wrote in their recent report.
Even if borrowers declare bankruptcy, judges will rarely cancel student loans unless the loans bring "undue hardship," according to CollegeScholarships.org.
That means that many restructure their loans and end up paying years more than what they thought.
"In sum, student loan debt is not just a concern for the young," they added.
Young said she was resigned to paying on her loan the rest of her life — before she found out about the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program that pardons federal student loans after borrowers have worked 10 years at a federal, state or local government agency or tax-exempt nonprofit agency.
Young has worked for the state for seven years but the program only counts her tenure after Oct.1, 2007.
That means if she works another five years and four months — and regularly pays on her loan — then the balance will be forgiven.
"I want to keep working," she said.
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