The General Accounting Office released a report this week on elderly Americans with student loan debt. The report is 30 pages long but can be summarized in a few paragraphs.
First, the percentage of people aged 65 through 74 who have outstanding student loans is small but growing. In 2004, only 1 percent of people in this age category still owed on student loans. By 2010, that percentage had grown to 4 percent.
Second, the amount of student-loan debt held by elderly Americans is also growing. It grew six fold between 2005 and 2013--from $2.8 billion in 2005 to $18.2 billion last year.
Third, the number of elderly Americans who are having their Social Security Checks garnished because they defaulted on student loans has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2002, only 31,000 people had Social Security benefits garnished because they had defaulted on their student loans. That number has ballooned five fold in just 11 years; 155,000 Americans saw their Social Security checks reduced in 2013 because they had defaulted on student loans.
On one level, the GAO's report is no big deal. Currently, there are 39 million people with outstanding student loans. The number of elderly student-loan defaulters who are having their Social Security checks garnished---155,000--is only a drop in the bucket.
But that number will undoubtedly grow larger in the coming years. GAO reported that 6.9 million people who are 50 years old or older are carrying student-loan debt. That number has gone up 130 percent since 2005.
Moreover, the GAO pointed out that the amount of student loan debt held by elderly Americans grew much faster in recent years than it did for the general population. Between 2005 and 2013, the total amount of student loan indebtedness more than doubled, from $400 million to $1 trillion. But for people in the 65 to 74 age group, the amount of student loan debt grew six fold during those years.
And here's the scary part. Elderly student-loan debtors have higher default rates than younger people. Only 12 percent of federal student loans held by people in the 25 to 49 age bracket are din default. Among people 75 or older, more than half are in default!
I will make just a couple of points about this useful report.
First, in my view, a humane society should not garnish people's Social Security checks because they defaulted on their student loans. As I have said many times, Congress needs to amend the law to stop the garnishment of Social Security checks of elderly student-loan defaulters.
Let's face it, taking a small portion of people's Social Security checks (a maximum of 15 percent) probably won't even put a dent in individual debtors' total loan balances. Undoubtedly, most of them owe far more than they borrowed due to accruing interest and penalties.
Second, the Obama administration's proposal to encourage student-loan debtors to sign up for 20- and 25-year Income Based Repayment Programs (IBRPs) will only make this problem worse. A lot of people will be in their late 20s, early 30s, or even older when they begin paying off their student loans under 25-year repayment plans. Without a doubt, the percentage of people who enter retirement with outstanding student loan debt is going to increase as more and more people elect IBRPs to service their student loans.
The Department of Education, the Brookings Institution and several other education policy groups have endorsed IBRPs as a good way to help people manage their burgeoning student-loan obligations; and the New York Times also seems to like IBRPS.
But IBRPs are a terrible idea. Our nation cannot prosper economically if we have a high percentage of Americans paying on their student loans over the majority of their working lives.
It will take political courage to solve the student-loan crisis, and we won't solve it until we begin reducing the amount of money people borrow to attend college.
But we are going in the wrong direction. Every year, Americans borrow more and more money to attend college, and every year the average amount of individual indebtedness goes up. Encouraging people to pay off their loans over 25 years instead of 10 years just postpones the day when Americans will finally admit that the federal student loan program is out of control.
The federal student loan program is slowly destroying our economy and the integrity of higher education in the United States. And--with the advent of IBRPs--the number of elderly Americans who will see their retirement years blighted by student-loan debt is going to go no direction but up.
General Accounting Office. Older Americans: Inability to Repay Student Loans May Affect Financial Security of a Small Percentage of Borrowers. GAO-14-866T. Washington, DC: General Accounting Office. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-866T