More Older Borrowers Are Taking on More Student Loan Debt

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

While younger students have historically borrowed at higher rates than their older classmates, new data from the Department of Education (ED) found that a larger number of students above the age of 29 have been taking out loans to finance their education. This report comes out as more older students continue to enroll in higher education and stakeholders debate ways to adapt financial aid policies to fit their needs, such as developing free-tuition programs targeted at adult learners. 

Focusing only on those who completed their programs, the data found that in 1995-96, 60% of students age 24 to 29, 35% of students age 40 to 49, and 19% of students age 50 and older took out student loans. In 2015-16, however, the number of students age 24 to 29 who borrowed only increased by 6 percentage points, while the number of students age 40 to 49 and 50 and older who borrowed increased by 36 percentage points and 52 percentage points, respectively. 

The data also found that—measured in 2016 dollars—the average cumulative amount borrowed by students older than 24 increased at a much faster rate between those years than it did for younger borrowers. Specifically, while that amount for borrowers younger than 24 jumped by 61% (from $7,700 to $12,400), borrowers age 24 to 29 saw an 85% increase (from $9,400 to $17,400) and those age 30 to 39 saw a 181% increase (from $7,600 to $19,900). 

These figures are even more pronounced for borrowers age 40 and older. Students age 40 to 49 took out an average of $4,500 in loans in 1995-96 and $18,800 in loans in 2015-16, and those 50 and older took out $2,500 in loans in 1995-96 and $14,000 in loans in 2015-16.

Over the past two years, momentum around the concept of adult promise programs—which offer free-tuition—has been slowly growing. The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) is currently assisting 14 states in establishing such programs. However, other stakeholders are continuing to urge institutions to relax strict eligibility requirements attached to the majority of promise programs that exclude older students who cannot meet certain criteria, such as full-time enrollment. 


Publication Date: 8/23/2019

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