Student loan debt is not only a financial burden facing millennials. It's a big—and growing—problem for many older Americans who are near or in retirement.
Student loan balances among borrowers in their 50s or older made up 17 percent—or about $204 billion—of the nearly $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. last year, according to researchers at the New York Fed.
And while student loan balances have grown substantially for borrowers of all ages in the past decade, researchers say the fastest growth has been in total balances held by borrowers age 60 or older, which have increased nearly nine-fold since 2004.
"Student loan debt owed by older Americans includes debt borrowed or co-signed to help a child or grandchild pay for college as well as student loans for the borrower's own education," said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com, a college financial planning website. In financing their own education, "most of this debt is more recent...student loans borrowed when returning to college to finish an undergraduate degree, to switch to a new occupation or to obtain a graduate degree."
Older borrowers are also more likely to have defaulted on loans (meaning they fell behind or failed to make payments), and many incorrectly believe their balances can be discharged in bankruptcy. "Student loans are cancelled when a borrower dies, not when the borrower retires," reminds Kantrowitz.
In the fourth quarter of 2014, the average student loan balance for all borrowers was $26,700. If you're still carrying student loan debt as you approach retirement, here's what you need to do: