What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

More older Americans than ever are struggling with student debt

Read the Full Transcript

  • Megan Thompson:

    Nancy Kukay works at a community college in Maryland, coordinating technical education programs. She’s worked in education most of her career and loves her job. But at 65-years-old, she had imagined retiring by now.

  • Nancy Kukay:

    I can’t afford to retire. I could never make the payments.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Payments for student loans she took out for her son Andrew about a decade ago. She pays around $500 a month on the nearly $75,000 she owes on loans she took out, and others she co-signed with her son. By her math, she’ll probably be paying on her loans alone for another 11 years.

  • Nancy Kukay:

    Even if I started drawing on my retirement and Social Security together, I still wouldn’t have enough monthly to make those payments.

    It’s certainly not where I hoped to be at this stage in life.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The number of Americans age 60 and older with student loan debt quadrupled between 2005 and 2015 to nearly 3 million. And the average amount they owe has nearly doubled from 12-thousand dollars to almost 24-thousand.

  • Persis Yu:

    There’s a number of factors that contribute to why the number of older borrowers is increasing.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Attorney Persis Yu directs the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center in Boston.

  • Persis Yu:

    Student loans are structured to be paid over a very long period of time. They have no statute of limitations, which means that they follow you. They can follow you till you die, literally. And so there are a lot of borrowers who are out there who still have their own student loan debts from the ’70s, from the ’80s.

  • Annette Pelaez:

    I think originally it was, like, 27,000 dollars…

  • Megan Thompson:

    64-year-old Annette Pelaez of Boston is still paying about 300 dollars a month for the loan she took out 20 years ago to pursue graduate degrees in American Studies, a loan she expects to be paying for another 10 years. She worked for nonprofits serving children and the elderly, but her income never reached the level she had hoped.

  • Annette Pelaez:

    I’m making now what I made in the ’80s. I’m making about $42,000 a year.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So when you went back to grad school, you assumed you’d be making a lot more money than that?

  • Annette Pelaez:

    Oh, yes. Absolutely. I mean if I was making that money with a bachelor’s degree in the ’80s, I assumed that, you know, with a Master’s I’d do a little bit better.

  • Persis Yu:

    Folks with student loan debt typically save less than folks without student loan debt. And then, once they’re in retirement, if they are repaying loans, certainly that is a liability that they wouldn’t otherwise have to pay for when they’re on a fixed and limited income.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Because of her debt and the high cost of living in Boston, Pelaez says, she has little retirement savings. She recently retired but can’t afford to keep living in Boston – so she moved New Mexico, where it’s cheaper to live. But even still, her expected 1,000 dollar a month social security check won’t cover her expenses.

  • Annette Pelaez:

    Rent will be $620 plus utilities, and then there is the school loan, and there goes the $1,000. So I will be doing some part-time work.

  • Megan Thompson:

    How do you feel about that? I mean, is this what you pictured retirement being?

  • Annette Pelaez:

    Well, you know, at this point, I’m not so terribly concerned, because I’m still young enough to do so. What concerns me is that when I’m in my 70s or 80s, hopefully, if I get there, I may not be able to do that.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Like Pelaez, 27 percent of older Americans with student loans borrowed for their own education. But most, more than 70 percent, borrowed for their children’s or grandchildren’s education. People like Nancy Kukay. Kukay, who’s divorced, took out about $46,000 in her name and co-signed for around $34,000 more with her son Andrew, who graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2008.

  • Nancy Kukay:

    I entered into that, now as I, in hindsight, without nearly enough information. And didn’t know what I didn’t know about– financial aid. It’s vastly different from when I went to school. I didn’t have to borrow to go to school.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Kukay obtained about half of the 46-thousand dollars she borrowed for her son’s education through a federal loan program called “Parent Plus.” The number of Parent Plus borrowers has grown by 60 percent since 2005 to three-and-half million Americans.

    The National Consumer Law Center says some families can borrow more than they can afford under parent plus because the program lets them borrow as much as a college says they need without verifying their income.

  • Persis Yu:

    At no point is the school or the federal government seeing if the family can afford to repay this loan.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Is anyone along the way saying, ‘Hey, if you take out this amount of money, this is what it’s gonna mean for you.’ Is anybody kind of giving a warning to families?

  • Persis Yu:

    So, you know, there is some very minimal counseling that is required– when folks take out federal loans. The other component is a lot of these families don’t have a lot of other options. Because education is expensive. So a lot of families feel trapped, and they feel like they have to take out this, because they want to provide for their kids. And they want their kids to have a better future.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And that’s exactly what Nancy Kukay wanted for her son. Kukay says she wasn’t too worried about his ability to pay off his loans once he graduated.

  • Nancy Kukay:

    I kept telling him, and I thought this would be true, is, “This degree will give you a career that you can pay that off. Turns out not to be the case. He graduated in 2008 in the depths of the Great Recession. And jobs were hard to come by.

  • Megan Thompson:

    After graduating with a degree in sports management, Andrew has worked steadily — even taking on second jobs at night and on the weekends. But his earnings haven’t been enough to keep up with the 4-and 5 hundred dollar payments on the roughly 45-thousand dollars he took out, so Nancy’s been paying the loans she co-signed. I spoke to Andrew over Google Hangout.

  • Andrew Kukay:

    I did not think that you would be this hard to pay student loans. I definitely went in to school thinking I’ll get a decent paying job.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Andrew recently landed a higher-paying job and wants to help pay the loans his mom co-signed.

  • Andrew Kukay:

    I don’t want her to be suffering for any longer than she has to just for doing the nice thing and cosigning on a loan. Would I do it all over again? No. I would not do it again. I would stick around and stay home for a couple of years. And go to a community college. Near my house.

  • Megan Thompson:

    In the meantime, Nancy says, the loan payments are weighing her down.

  • Nancy Kukay:

    It governs everything I do, every decision I make. It all revolves around making sure that I have that money to make that payment every single month.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Nancy has consolidated, and has gotten slightly lower interest rates, on some of the loans. But she expects she’ll need to work part-time after she retires. And she’s also considering moving to Montana, where the cost of living is cheaper.

  • Nancy Kukay:

    My life isn’t going to be the way that I’d hoped that it would be. It just simply isn’t going to be.

  • Megan Thompson:

    There’s also this catch with federal loans, and older borrowers who can’t pay them off. The U.S. treasury can garnish their Social Security benefits.

    In fact, between 2002 and 2015, the number of Americans having social security disability and retirements garnished because of unpaid loans increased almost 500 percent to 173-thousand.

  • Manuel Roberts:

    Who do I go and get this money back from?

  • Megan Thompson:

    It happened to 55-year-old Manuel Roberts of Brooklyn, New York.

    He paid off most all of the 13,000 dollars he borrowed to attend the University of Southern California in the 1980’s. But after losing a job, he defaulted on the last three thousand dollars and then sustained a severe head injury in 2002.

  • Manuel Roberts:

    Then I was injured- street violence. I was a victim of a violent crime. I was in a coma for two weeks or so.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Roberts received Social Security disability checks for 1,300 dollars every month. But the government began deducting 200 dollars from every check for the defaulted loan.

  • Manuel Roberts:

    I was already in a bad situation. It’s plain to see they just made it worse.

  • Megan Thompson:

    The Social Security deductions pushed Roberts to the verge of the federal poverty line. It turns out, there’s a program for people disabled like Roberts to get their loans eliminated. But many people don’t know about it.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So no one ever said, ‘Hey, we notice you’re getting disability income. You might be also eligible for a disability discharge. This could stop.’

  • Manuel Roberts:

    No, that never- that was never brought to me by anybody.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Roberts’ attorney helped him get the disability discharge…and is also helping him and six people with similar stories sue the heads of the federal Department of Education, Treasury, and the Social Security Administration- alleging that they don’t do enough to let people know about the Disability Discharge program.

    The federal Department of Education declined an on-camera interview with PBS NewsHour Weekend and did not respond to written questions. The Social Security administration and Treasury Department also did not comment.

  • Megan Thompson:

    US senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are sponsoring legislation to eliminate the practice of garnishing social security benefits for unpaid loans… but the bill’s gone nowhere so far.

    Nancy Kukay’s Social Security checks are not at risk, because she keeps kept up with her monthly student loan payments. For other parents trying to figure out how to pay for college now, she has this advice.

  • Nancy Kukay:

    I would strongly encourage them to become educated in the– in every aspect of financial aid. Talk to the college financial aid people. I didn’t do that. That’s a huge mistake. I made assumptions that turned out not to be true. And mine is a cautionary tale.

    Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

Listen to this Segment

Latest News