(NewsNation) — In the world of student loans, it’s not all young people racking up debt and having trouble paying the loans back. Millions of senior citizens also face mounting student loan debt.
When student loan debt first comes to mind, someone like 65-year-old Myrtis Whalen Hooson might not be your first thought.
“I had to defer our car payment a couple of times to make a student loan payment,” Hooson told NewsNation.
About 13 years ago, her husband, who has since died, became disabled. Hooson’s $9-an-hour job couldn’t support the family. So at 54 years old, she took out loans and went back to school to become a certified medical assistant.
“I was paying all my student loans, and paying on my student loans, and I was getting further and further in debt. It was stressful, not sleeping. Sometimes I didn’t even eat,” Hooson said.
She said she even cut back on groceries just to make her monthly student loan payments.
But Hooson’s story isn’t unique, and she is just one of 1.4 million Americans over 62 years old who are still paying back student loans. And for Americans 50 years old and older, that number jumps to more than 6 million with student debt.
In fact, collectively, seniors owe about $296 billion in student loan debt.
“When you think of the word ‘student’ in debt, you immediately think about a younger person. People over 60 have become the fastest-growing segment in the student loan market,” Barry Coleman with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling said.
He said that seniors do get overlooked, but also said the skyrocketing costs of college mean more Americans carry debt into their senior years. In some cases, paying off their own student debt while taking on more for their children.
“When a borrower defaults on federal student loans, the federal government can actually garnish up to 15% of Social Security payments,” Coleman explained.
He also said that about 40% of senior borrowers have defaulted.
“I did it for my family, so I can better our living,” Hooson said.
She understands people opposing loan forgiveness but hopes Americans don’t rush to judgment about who has student loan debt and why they have it.
If President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan does move forward, Hooson would benefit from it. However, there are plenty of other seniors who’ve taken out private loans who would not benefit from Biden’s plan.
Experts said that most seniors do qualify for income-driven repayment plans, which could lower monthly payments.