Student Loan Debt: A Trans-Generational Issue

As I have written here before, I listen to business man Dave Ramsey’s YouTube videos as much as possible. I like his no-nonsense (albeit sometimes grumpy) advice to his in-debt listeners to “follow the baby steps” to pay-off debt. (Dave preaches the “debt snowball,” meaning that the smallest debt should be paid-off first and then the next debt, and the next debt, etc.)

One of Dave’s favorite rants is about student loans–specifically that too many people have taken out these loans to (in his opinion) pursue fields of study that aren’t very lucrative. He worries (and rightfully so) that these individuals will carry a debt burden for the remainder of their lives simply because they didn’t perform their due diligence prior to enrolling in college and taking-out loans to cover tuition.

Some of his followers have argued the point. After all, they say, who can really know whether a degree will result in a high-paying job? The market can be volatile, they contend. Some of the more critical allege that Dave’s Baby Boomer perspective keeps him from fully appreciating the complicated economic scenario facing Gen Y, Z, and (if something doesn’t change soon) Alpha.

To an extent, they are right. Dave has a ritual that he follows whenever someone calls into his show and professes to be drowning in student loan debt. After inquiring how much money the caller owes, Dave asks “So, which are you? A doctor or a lawyer?” Now, let’s face it: Not everyone wants to be a doctor or a lawyer. In addition, some statistics indicate that the legal profession and some parts of the medical field are saturated. Plus, today’s job market is pretty nuanced. There are new occupations springing-up every year. (Did you ever think that “life coaching” would become a real field of endeavor? Me, neither.) It’s hard to predict what fields will still be viable when a student graduates from college or how much money an entry-level job in those fields will pay.

Yet, those who throw ageist shade Dave’s way fail to take into account that student debt isn’t just a younger person’s problem. In fact, AARP reports:

The percentage of families headed by someone 50 or older with student loan debt more than tripled between 1989 and 2016, from 3.1 percent to 9.6 percent….Since 2004, student loan debt among those 60 and older has grown the fastest of any age group.

Most of this debt was accrued when seniors re-trained for encore careers or to maintain jobs requiring updated skill sets. Still others accrued debt by signing for their children’s or grandchildren’s student loans. As AARP points-out, seniors are often faced with repaying these loans while on fixed incomes and supporting children and even grandchildren who can’t find employment. AARP reports that, several years ago, the Social Security income of 114,000 seniors was garnished in an effort to collect student loan debt (AARP Bulletin, March 2019, p. 22 – 25). 

Listen, I’m the last one to say that someone should take-out a loan and not re-pay it. However, I am also a realist: The student loan debt clock totaled America’s student loan debt at $1,667,530,481,920.60 at 9:09 PM EST this evening. It has grown even larger since then. One thing I think we can agree upon is that — whether we are student loan borrowers or not — when such a large segment of our nation is financially strapped and for such an extended period of time, the rest of the economy is placed at-risk. Whether we are conservative, liberal, or somewhere in-between, we need to urge our legislators to address this debt before it places us in an even tighter strangle-hold. 


AARP Bulletin. (March 2019). Student Debt Isn’t Kid Stuff Anymore.