Deep and Pervasive Student Loan Debt Impacts Older Americans

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

More than two million Americans over the age of sixty are battling student loan debt. Those who are 60 and older hold onto $43 billion in unpaid loan debt, which is five times what they owed in 2005. Elderly Americans who have stopped paying their federal student loans risk losing large portions of their Social Security payments, as well as other sources of income assistance that they receive.

Between January and July 2014, the federal government withheld Social Security payments from 140,000 such people. Eric Merklein, 67, was unaware of his vast student debt until June of this year, when his Social Security check arrived 300 dollars short of its normal amount. About 40 years ago, he had taken out a loan to attend Southern Illinois University, which he believed his grandmother had repaid. To his surprise, the Department of Education informed Merklein that a portion of his benefit was being withheld to pay off the debt. Before reducing Social Security checks, the government is required to notify its debtors, yet Merklein states he was never contacted. Due to interest and default fees, Merklein’s student debt has increased from $3,750 dollars to $21,118.

Ben Miller, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation states, “The challenge is getting people to recognize that student debt goes beyond just younger adults.” A better solution to the issue would involve forgiving those who are most vulnerable, such as those who are not able to make regular payments and meet the minimal standard of living, believes Deanne Loonin, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. Unfortunately there is no limit to the government’s inevitable collection of student debt. Loonin affirms, “In human terms, literally, that means that it follows them to their graves.”

Source: Natalie Kitroeff, “Student Debt Threatens the Safety Net for Elderly Americans,” Bloomberg Businessweek, August 16, 2014,

Student Researcher: Hailey Oster (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Faye Smyle (Napa Valley College)