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Across Generations, Struggles With Student Loan Debt

Boomers, Gen Xers and millennials question the cost of college in new survey

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Student loan debt could hinder the financial security of boomers, Generation X and millennials, blocking them from such immediate goals as buying a home and from achieving long-term needs, including saving for retirement, according to a new survey.

In the poll this summer of 4,862 adults, 40 percent said student loan debt had prevented or delayed them from saving for retirement, and 32 percent said it stopped or set back their plans to buy a house. The survey, commissioned by AARP and the Association of Young Americans, was conducted by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. It suggests that regardless of generation, many people have to balance their higher education aspirations against paying their everyday bills.

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“Student loans have an impact on financial security across generations,” says Lori Trawinski of the financial security team at AARP’s Public Policy Institute. “Education is one of those issues that really pulls people’s heartstrings because parents want their children to have every opportunity to succeed.”

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The weight of student loan debt, as expected, is felt most immediately by those close to traditional college age. For example, 36 percent of respondents who are millennials said they had student loan debt for their own education, and 19 percent of Gen Xers said they were still paying off their own student loans. Only 4 percent of the boomer respondents still owed money for their educational loans.

Of course, people also take on student loan debt to help finance the educations of their children, grandchildren and other loved ones. Among the millennials surveyed, the majority of those who took out loans to help pay for someone else’s studies (69 percent) did so on behalf of a spouse or partner. For the boomers polled, 77 percent who borrowed to help finance someone else’s higher education did so for their children and 7 percent helped their grandchildren. Among Generation Xers, 64 percent of those who helped finance a loved one’s education took out loans for their children. 

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But there are trade-offs to helping others pursue their dream of a degree. “People will often do anything they can to help their children go to college, and sometimes that comes at the expense of their own financial security,” Trawinski says. “In some cases, people may not be able to save at all for their own retirement because they’re paying for their children’s education.”

The survey also found that people are beginning to question whether college is worth the cost. When asked whether they “believe the benefits of a college education today are worth the costs,” 59 percent of all respondents answered no. Research has found that those with college educations typically fare better financially in the long term.

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