At age 51, Charlene Rose had hoped to be socking away money for retirement by now. But instead, she's still paying off her student loans, largely for a master's degree she got to advance her career. And now she's got three kids in college, each of whom is taking out student loans of their own to pay for higher education.
Together, Rose and her children owe as much as $136,000 in student loans. "I didn't think I would have this much debt," Rose said. But she thinks it's important for her children to get college degrees, even though her student loan debt could affect her ability to retire.
"I think that I'll still be able to pay it off. That's my goal. I just can't see not paying the debt," Rose said. It is ironic since Rose, who lives outside Orlando, Fla., is director of housing for Consumer Debt Counselors, counseling people about their mortgage debt.
Rose is just one of a new group of Americans—parents struggling to pay off student loans even as their children take on new debts to pay for their own schooling. Student loans were once thought of as temporary. But for some Americans, they're becoming a lifetime—or even a multigenerational—burden, as parents become unable to help their children pay for tuition, forcing the children to take on even more debt themselves.
The New York Federal Reserve, which tracks the data, reports that student loan debt is the only form of consumer debt that has grown since the peak of consumer debt in 2008. What's more, the amount owed in student loans is now greater than both auto loans and credit cards, making student loan debt the largest form of consumer debt outside of mortgages. It's all driven by relentless increases in the cost of tuition at a time when the country is struggling with sky high unemployment.
(Read more: Student loan debtrelief industry draws scrutiny)