In reality, many people carry student loans well into their 50s, 60s and beyond. Americans 60 and older still owe about $36 billion in student loans according to recent research by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
According to the College Board, it takes the average college student about 15 years to pay off his or her educational loans. So if you returned to school in your 40s — say to complete a bachelor's degree you always wanted to earn, or perhaps to pursue a graduate degree — you could still be grappling with those loans.
And even if you haven't racked up college debt of your own, you might have co-signed for your children's student loans, making you just as legally responsible for repayment as your offspring.
Whether you have your own educational loans that remain outstanding, or you're on the hook for college debt as a result of having co-signed for your kids' student loans, you need a financial game plan.
You don't want to let any student loans go into default, as that can damage your credit rating, hurt your chances of getting certain jobs and make you ineligible to receive future educational loans. Also, if you default on a student loan, even one you received decades ago, a lender can legally seize part of your Social Security checks to repay that debt.
Jesse Ryan, managing director of Accounting Principals, suggests the following three-phased approach to help get student loans under control.
Phase 1: Look to Consolidate Loans So They're More Manageable
"Government consolidation loans allow you to bundle all of your federal student loans into one monthly payment, often providing you with a lower interest rate than the average weighted rate of your existing loans," says Ryan. "As an added perk, consolidation may even lower your monthly loan payments."
Tip: For those with federal student loans, find out about your loan consolidation options by calling the Direct Loan Origination Center's Consolidation Department at 800-557-7392. Also, here are some frequently asked questions and answers about student loan consolidation.
Phase 2: Help Your Child Learn Personal Responsibility
Ryan and other experts agree that it's the student — not the parent — who needs to pay off loans that were taken for their education.
"If they are not employed full time, encourage them to consider temporary work to not only build on their résumés and augment their skills, but also to earn a paycheck," Ryan says of adult children.
Tip: If your son or daughter is still engaged in a lengthy or expensive program of study, such as law school or medical school, have him or her explore alternative methods of financing his or her education, such as scholarships, grants, paid internships and work study programs. FinAid.org is a good website to explore for money to pay for college.
Phase 3: Explore Deferred Payment Options
If you or your child isn't working, look to defer student loan repayments until gainful employment is obtained. Deferment or forbearance options will give you (or your child) a little breathing room by either changing the terms of the original student loan agreement, or letting you delay making payments for a fixed period of time. Be aware, however, that the longer you defer payments, the more interest charges you'll rack up.
"If your children don't have jobs lined up right after graduation, requesting a six-month deferment on their student loans will help buy a little extra time and save your credit score in the process," says Ryan. "You can contact your loan servicers for information on how to do this."
Tip: Sallie Mae, the nation's largest student lender, offers deferments for more than a dozen scenarios, including unemployment, the birth of a new child, volunteering at a nonprofit agency and extreme economic hardship.
Tackling large student loan debts can seem burdensome at first. But with the right strategies and some persistence, you and your family can wipe out these debts.