Student Loan Consolidation Debt by Age


Student loans, like other major student loan consolidation debts, can follow a borrower for a significant portion of their life. Additionally, loan debt affects some groups of people more severely than others, with notable differences by race and gender. That is also true of age groups.

When you look at student loan debt by age, the discrepancies among age cohorts are affected by both the tuition rates in effect when the members of each age group attended college and by whether the older cohorts took on additional or new debt by co-signing or borrowing on behalf of a family member. Additionally, interest rates can result in loan balances increasing over time, even as participants begin paying them off. Because student loans aren’t self-amortized, borrowers do not have the luxury of a set repayment schedule to ensure that the debt is repaid by an agreed-upon term. What’s more, as the youngest group’s loans are the newest, only for themselves, and less likely to include graduate school debt, their debt burdens are smaller student loan consolidation”}” data-sheets-userformat=”{“2″:8705,”3”:{“1″:0},”12″:0,”16″:10}”>student loan consolidation

What makes student loan debt different from many other kinds of borrowing is that it can have a multigenerational impact. In an email correspondence with Investopedia, University of Pennsylvania Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Human Resources Peter Cappelli said: “Parents are scrimping to send their kids to college and help them pay off student loans, so it affects their retirement. Usually we think of intergenerational problems as being difficulties facing the current generation affecting the next one, their kid. This is the reverse: The kid’s difficulties are affecting their parents.”

Key Takeaways

  • 50-to-61-year-old borrowers had the highest average student loan debt in 2021, at $43,214.16; the 24-and-younger age group owed the least, at $14,657.92 on average.
  • 35-to-49-year-old borrowers owed the most on average in terms of total debt, at $613 billion in Q2 ’21, while the 62-and-older group, at $92.7 billion, owed the least during this same period.
  • California had the highest student loan debt balances in total and across all age groups. Wyoming had the lowest amount in total and across all categories except for the “62-and-older” range.
  • Comprising 14.9 million people, 25-to-34 year olds represent the largest group of borrowers in 2021.
  • At 19%, 35-to-54-year-old borrowers were the most likely to be in default in 2018.

Understanding Student Loan Debt

Student debt represents how much an individual owes after securing financing for a higher education from the federal government, a private lender, or both. This money can be used to cover tuition, textbooks and other school supplies, basic living expenses, and other costs. As of Jan. 2021, at $1.7 trillion, Americans collectively owed more in student loan debt than the gross domestic product (GDP) of nearly every country on Earth.

Most students will likely have to take out a student loan, as potential scholarships and/or parental financial assistance may not be enough to cover all expenses. What’s more, the amounts borrowed will likely continue to rise in the future, given that the cost of education has been steadily increasing.

More than 44 million Americans carry student loan debt. Those who are unable to afford the debt repayments will experience their loans becoming delinquent. This can result in their debt going into default after a sufficient amount of time passes without payment. Having loans that lapse into either of these states can have a significant negative impact on a borrower’s credit score and credit report. Having to keep up with timely loan repayments can also make it harder to save for emergencies and for major purchases, such as a house or a car.

Given that the cost of a higher education has continued to rise—and considering that debt fluctuates over time depending on payments and interest rates—it makes sense that borrowers would owe different amounts depending on their age. Before we can better understand the relationship between age and debt balances, we must first determine which age groups to use, as sources are not consistent in the age ranges they use to organize their data. Below are the most common age groups, which will serve as the “baseline” for this article:

  • 24 and Younger: Generation Z (nine–24)
  • 25 to 34: Majority of the millennial generation
  • 35 to 49: Millennials (35–40); Generation X (41–49)
  • 50 to 61: Generation X (50–56); baby boomers (57–61)
  • 62 and Older: Baby boomers (62–75); silent generation (76–93)

Should a source in this article use different age ranges than the ones listed above, their data will be presented as reported. Additionally, as many of these studies are not updated on an annual basis, data may be sourced from different years. Below are the findings from our research on student loan debt by age.

Size of Student Loan Debt by Age

The first factor to consider is the actual size of the debt burdens each group is facing. As it’s functionally impossible to visually represent the loan amounts of each individual U.S. citizen, there are two ways we can analyze this data. Comparing the average student loan debt by age group provides a rough estimation of which generations have the highest debt burdens on an individual level. Meanwhile, the total amount owed by each group gives us a better understanding of which generations have taken on the most student loan debt.

Based on data from the office of Federal Student Aid, at $43,214.16, 50-to-61-year-old borrowers had the highest average student loan debt in 2021 Q2. The 35-to-49-year-old cohort was close behind at $42,583.92 on average. The 24-and-younger group owed the least student loan debt, at $14,657.92 on average. This is unsurprising, given that the majority of borrowers who fall within this age range haven’t had much time for interest to accumulate—or to complete graduate school.

When looking at total student loan debt by age, at $613 billion in Q2’21, 35-to-49-year-old borrowers owed the largest amount on average. The second-highest amount belonged to the 25-to-34 demographic, which owed $500.6 billion in total as of this same period. At $92.7 billion, the smallest amount of total student loan debt belongs to the 62-and-older group, though this may change in the future.

According to Federal Student Aid, 24-and-younger borrowers are the only age group to owe less in student loan debt in 2021 than they did in 2017. This is possibly a result of college enrollments having declined in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while there was a nearly 8 billion decrease from 20’Q2 to 20’Q3—and a less than 3 billion recovery in 20’Q4—these amounts aren’t atypical when compared to the same quarters in the previous year.

Each of the other groups have experienced their total debt burdens increasing at different rates. For example, the total student loan debt owed by 62-and-older borrowers has increased by $40.8 billion since 2017. This could be the result of the oldest borrowers having either returned to school to improve their career prospects or taken out loans to support their children/grandchildren’s education(s). Meanwhile, even though they owe far more per borrower, 25-to-34 year olds only experienced a $23.2 billion increase. Both of these numbers are far lower than the $128.3 billion increase in total borrowing experienced by 35-to-49-year-olds over the last three years. According to Credit Sesame, this increase is a result of Generation X parents paying for their own student loan debt while also taking on their children’s debt burdens. This is the first occurrence of two sets of education debt in one generation, the site reports.

“The oldest borrowers among [the 35-to-49] group are likely taking out Parent PLUS loans, which generally have terrible terms relative to traditional federal student loans. The youngest are likely taking out Graduate PLUS loans, which is where you have seen the most growth over the past several decades,” said Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Economics Department at Temple University Douglas Webber, as part of an email correspondence with Investopedia. “There are also many people in this age group attending undergraduate programs, but they are more likely to be attending higher cost for-profit programs that rely heavily on federal student debt.”

Student Loan Debt by Age & State

Additionally, due to education costs and other expenses varying by state, the amount of student loan debt by age differs between each U.S. state. This can be seen both in how many borrowers reside in an individual state, as well as in the total amount owed by each age group.

When looking at Federal Student Aid’s state-by-state breakdown of student loan debt as of 2021, California is notable for having the highest values in all measured categories:

  • Total Borrowers: 3,860.1 million
  • 24 or Younger (Total): $8.67 billion
  • 25 to 34 (Total): $49.99 billion
  • 35 to 49 (Total): $52.44 billion
  • 50 to 61 (Total): $23.10 billion
  • 62 and Older (Total): $8.45 billion

Conversely, Wyoming has the lowest values in nearly every measured category:

  • Total Borrowers: 52.9 million
  • 24 or Younger (Total): $0.09 billion
  • 25 to 34 (Total): $0.47 billion
  • 35 to 49 (Total): $0.72 billion
  • 50 to 61 (Total): $0.27 billion

The state with the lowest total amount owed by 62-and-older borrowers is North Dakota, though Wyoming has just $0.01 billion more in total than the former state.

How Age Shapes Student Loan Debt

The differences among the age groups tells a story of how Americans experience student loan debt over a lifetime—first their own debt and then, potentially, debt for children and sometimes grandchildren or other family members. The above statistics indicate that 50-to-61-year-old borrowers are the most impacted by high student loan debt, followed closely by 35-to-49 year olds.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, and the Fed’s data doesn’t tell the full story. In addition to age in and of itself, the following three factors are also important for understanding student loan debt balances by age:

  • Number of Borrowers: The number of individuals within an age range will naturally affect the amount of total student loan debt owed by said group. This information can also be used to calculate a cohort’s student loan debt per capita.
  • Generational Wealth: Borrowers with greater access to generational wealth will have more resources to pay down student loan debt faster, without sacrificing their ability to save for other important purchases.
  • Delinquency and Default: Those who are unable to repay their debt will experience their balances increasing over time. The impact on their credit will limit their ability to support themselves financially.

Which Age Group Has the Most Borrowers?

The number of borrowers per group is one of the most important contextual piece of information to have. After all, if one age range has a higher debt burden than another but also has more borrowers, then it’s safe to assume that the higher amount is at least partially the result of there being more people taking out similar amounts of debt.

According to Federal Student Aid, the largest group of borrowers was 25-to-34 year olds, at 14.9 million as of 2021. Close behind them were 35-to-49 year olds, a group comprised of approximately 14.3 million borrowers during that same year. The third-largest was noticeably lower, with 7.5 million 24-and-younger borrowers. The smallest amount was the 62-and-older group at 2.4 million. Notably, the 25-to-34 years old category was the only one to be lower than the amount reported in 2017, with a difference of 0.4 million borrowers.

Which Age Group Owes the Most Per Person?

Although the average student loan debt by age group is a useful way to gauge how much each individual member of a particular generation might owe, it’s neither the only one nor is it necessarily the most accurate. By dividing the total amount of student loan debt per generation by the relevant number of borrowers, we can calculate student loan debt per capita by age. Although this functionally assumes that all borrowers have the same amount of debt, which obviously isn’t true, it allows us to get a similar number to the average while still seeing how it’s changed over time.

As of 2021, the 50-to-61 age group had the highest average student loan debt per person, at $43.44 thousand. The 35-to-49 age group was close behind with an average of $42.87 thousand per capita. At $15.16 thousand, borrowers who were 24 years old and younger had the smallest student loan debt on average. The 50-to-61 age group has also experienced the largest increase in their average student loan debt since 2017. Conversely, the 24-and-younger range was the only one to experience a decrease in the average student loan debt per capita during that same period.

Based on this data, we can infer that the larger number of borrowers may explain why the 35-to-49 years old group’s burden is so high. After all, the more borrowers that are, the more debt there’s going to be in total. However, by that logic the 25-to-34 group ought to have the highest debt balance. Additionally, this doesn’t explain the average debt balances by age group. If the number of borrowers were all that mattered, then the 25-to-34 year old borrowers wouldn’t owe less on average than the 50-to-61 and 62-and-older groups. Although the amount of borrowers in a given age range likely affects the amount of debt owed, it is just one factor among several.

Which Age Group Has More Generational Wealth?

Generational wealth is a trickier factor to quantify, as it is itself comprised of several different elements. The main idea is that, if a family has had more wealth across generations, then their descendants will have greater financial resources outside of what they earn through their careers. The opposite is also true, as those with less access to generational wealth may have to spend more of their earned income to support their still-living family members. The much heavier student debt burden faced by people of color stems, in large part, from America’s huge generational wealth gap by race.

Generational wealth can take the form of gifts (whether these be sums of money or valuable items) and paying for educational and/or medical expenses. Then there’s inheritance, which is when a person can receive a bulk of their family’s generational wealth en masse after a relative’s passing, if they were included in the deceased’s will.

According to VoxEU, 19% of U.S. households surveyed between 2010–2014 reported receiving an intergenerational wealth transfer at some point, the majority of which were in the form of inheritances. Individuals over 65 years old received the largest share of generational wealth transfer during this time frame and those under 35 received the smallest share—38.4% and 4.6%, respectively. This makes sense, as the younger we are, the less likely our parents are to die, and vice versa. And, since living longer affords people more time to accumulate wealth, those who lose their family members at an older age may receive a more substantial inheritance.

Having greater access to generational wealth may be one reason the oldest age group has the lowest total student loan debt. Others are that they likely have paid off their own student debt and much or all borrowed for their children. In addition, college costs when they were students were much lower than they are now.

“This is mostly just a mechanical function of when these borrowers went to school. Older borrowers went to school at a time when tuition was a lot lower,” Webber added. “The youngest borrowers haven’t fully completed their education yet, most importantly graduate school. If nothing changes in terms of student loan policy, Gen Z student debt will surpass the older generations once they have completed their education.”

Despite accounting for the second-largest share of total wealth transferred, the 35-to-49 group still has the highest student loan burden. This, of course, is an age group likely to be paying perhaps both the last of their own debt and loans taken out for their children. What’s more, the number of households receiving inheritances—and the amount each beneficiary receives—may not be enough to make much of a dent in an average debt load of more than $42.5 thousand dollars per person.

Which Age Group Is More Likely to Miss Payments?

The serious consequences of failing to make on-time payments make high student loan burdens a major stressor. However, having large amounts of education debt doesn’t necessarily correlate with difficulty repaying it (think of a physician in a thriving practice repaying medical school loans). To determine which age groups are genuinely struggling with their education debt, we must consider default rates and delinquency amounts by age.

In terms of default rates, a Statista survey found that 35-to-54-year-old borrowers were the most likely to be in default in 2018, at 19%. This group was followed by 18-to-34 year olds and and 55+ borrowers at 15% and 5%, respectively. Additionally, 35-to-54-year-old borrowers were approximately half as likely to have previous defaulted on their loans than the other two groups. At 53%, this group was also the least likely never to go into default, with 18-to-34 year olds being five percentage points higher. At 80%, 55+ borrowers were the most likely never to have defaulted on their loans.

According to a 2019 Experian report, the total amount of delinquent student debt owed by each age range was lowest for the loans that were the most overdue. Borrowers age 35-to-49 had the highest amount across all categories, with their $15.5 billion owed for the 31–90 days delinquent category being the highest overall. Close behind this group was the 25-to-34 years old age range, owing $12 billion for the same time period. The third-lowest group, however, owed slightly over half as much as its predecessor within this time frame. The lowest overall amount, at $0.04 billion, was owed by 24-and-younger borrowers with debt payments that are 361+ days delinquent.

Based on these two studies, the groups that owed the largest total delinquent debt and were the most likely to go into default were 35-to-49 year olds and 35-to-54 year olds, respectively. Although these are different age ranges, given that there is a chronological overlap between them, this data suggests that borrowers between 35-to-49 years of age struggle the most with repaying their student loans, even if the larger number of borrowers may be inflating the total number somewhat.

How Much Student Loan Debt Does Each Age Group Have on Average?

Based on data from the office , this is the average amount each age group owed in student loan debt in 2021:

  • 24 and Younger: $14,657.92
  • 25 to 34: $33,565.55
  • 35 to 49: $42,583.92
  • 50 to 61: $43,214.16
  • 62 and Older: $38,769.02

What Age Do People Pay Off Their Student Loan Debt on Average?

A 2020 New York Life survey found the average participant took 18.5 years to pay off their student loan debt, from age 26 to approximately 45.

Are Student Loans Forgiven at a Certain Age?

In the U.S., federal student loans are not automatically forgiven at any age. Some countries, such as England, write off student loans that were made several years ago after the borrower turns 65 years old.

The Bottom Line

With so many factors in play, it’s difficult to nail down specific reasons for the discrepancies in student loan debt by age—or whether the patterns we see today will continue into the future. Current Federal Student Aid data shows that middle-aged borrowers are struggling the most with high student loan debt, and they are the most likely to suffer from delinquency and default as a result.

What we don’t know is whether millennial and Gen X borrowers will get paid up and experience lower debt burdens over time, as has happened with today’s older age cohort. Or will they carry their student debt problems into later years, resulting in a new debt surge in older age groups? One concern: Social Security benefits can be garnished to pay federal student debt.

Total student loan debt balances have been steadily increasing across nearly all age ranges over the last four years, which could be a result of the growing cost of education. Once more members of Gen Z graduate and have time to accumulate interest, we should gain a better understanding of the long-term impact of age on student loan debt.

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