May 15, 2019
AARP Study Shows Student Loan Debt Has Great Impact Across Generations
An Intergenerational Threat That Increasingly Pressures Older Americans
Of those 50 and over who helped pay for 'someone else,' 80 percent helped a child, compared with six percent who helped a spouse or partner; eight percent, a grandchild, and even smaller percentages 'who helped other relatives or friends.'

WASHINGTON Student loan debt has been a skyrocketing problem across multiple age groups over recent decades, and an AARP Public Policy Institute (PPI) report highlights the important role that older Americans play in financing college education for their children, grandchildren and other family members.

Federal Reserve data shows that Americans owed $1.5 trillion in student loan debt as of last December. An updated analysis shows people aged 50 and older owed 20 percent of that total, or $289.5 billion, a more than five-fold increase from $47.3 billion in 2004.

“It is stunning that more families are taking on such sharply greater amounts of student debt than in the past,” said Lori Trawinski, director of Banking and Finance at the AARP Public Policy Institute.

“For younger families, this burden impedes their ability to save for other purposes, such as for a home, their children’s education or for their own retirement,” added Trawinski. “For older families, long-term financial security can be threatened by this burden.”

Most older borrowers hold loans taken out for their own education, and the percentage of borrowers aged 50 and older in default is much higher than for younger borrowers. Data also show that Parent PLUS (direct federal loan) borrowers aged 65+ are facing higher rates of default than younger age groups.

The PPI report includes survey results released today that focus on the role played by 50 and older Americans in helping “someone else pay for college and other post high school education.”

(The survey specifically included only those individuals who have not yet fully paid off the debt or who have paid it off within the past five years.)

Of those 50 and over who helped pay for “someone else,” 80 percent helped a child, compared with six percent who helped a spouse or partner; eight percent, a grandchild, and even smaller percentages “who helped other relatives or friends.”

A key finding was that the most common involvement by people aged 50 and older was cosigning a loan (45 percent), while a smaller percentage (34 percent) ran a balance on a credit card and 26 percent took out a Parent PLUS loan.

Among those who cosigned a private student loan, nearly half – 49 percent – made a payment on the loan, often because they wanted to proactively assist the student borrower. A quarter (25 percent) said they had to make a payment after the student failed to do so.

The survey asked the one quarter of survey respondents who had taken out a Parent PLUS federal loan, and who had made a payment over the prior five years, whether they ever had any difficulty making payments. Nearly a third (32 percent) did have a problem with at least one payment. The breakdown by race/ethnicity for those having a problem with a payment was: African Americans/Blacks, 46 percent; Hispanics, 49 percent, and whites, 29 percent.

The survey was conducted online in August, 2017 by GFK using the GFK KnowledgePanel®. The survey was fielded among a sample of adults aged 40 and older who have education-related debt for college or other post high school education on behalf of someone else. The sample consisted of 3,319 adults aged 40 and older, including 838 non-Hispanic African Americans, 860 Hispanic/Latinos and 1,117 aged 60 and older. The margin of error was +/- 2.2 percent.


About AARP

AARP is the nation’s largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to empowering people 50 and older to choose how they live as they age. With a nationwide presence and nearly 38 million members, AARP strengthens communities and advocates for what matters most to families: health security, financial stability and personal fulfillment. AARP also produces the nation's largest circulation publications: AARP The Magazine and AARP Bulletin. To learn more, visit or follow @AARP and @AARPadvocates on social media.

For further information: AARP Media Relations, 202-434-2560,, @AARPMedia