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Business News/ News / Student Debt Runs in the Family
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Student Debt Runs in the Family


Parents and children are struggling to get out from their own college debt, compounding unease about their collective financial future.

There is roughly the same number of student-loan borrowers under the age of 34 as those aged 35 and older, according to data from Premium
There is roughly the same number of student-loan borrowers under the age of 34 as those aged 35 and older, according to data from

The cost of student loans isn’t just affecting young Americans. It is rippling through generations of families at once, hampering the ability to build wealth and prepare for retirement.

There is roughly the same number of student-loan borrowers under the age of 34 as those aged 35 and older, according to data from The older category holds nearly two-thirds of outstanding student debt, the data shows. Both groups will be saddled with an extra monthly payment when the $1.7 trillion in student loans comes due again this month.

Almost everyone in the Ayotte family is paying student loans right now.

Jameson and Melanie Ayotte are repaying loans they took out for graduate school nearly 30 years ago. The Massachusetts-based couple have amassed $86,000 in student debt, and are $26,000 away from fully repaying it.

Two of their three children are already in college, on a mix of scholarships, grants and federal student loans.

“It’s downright depressing at the end of the day," said Jameson, a 51-year-old firefighter.

For decades, many Americans followed a conventional road map: Go to college, get married, buy a home and then start a family. There was also the hope that they would be financially stable enough to help children with their college payments when the time came.

But that road map is now often breaking down. Multiple generations are struggling to get out from their own college loans, compounding unease about their collective financial future. The breakdown also creates a practical problem: The younger generation isn’t able to pay off their loans quickly without help from their parents, and then neither generation is able to save as much for the future.

“What you’re talking about is a degree of generational indebtedness," said Cliff Robb, professor of consumer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It can create this feeling of despair."

Laurel Taylor, chief executive and founder of Candidly, a student-debt technology and coaching platform, accumulated nearly $200,000 in student-loan debt. Her mom also took out a Parent Plus loan for $35,000 of Taylor’s undergraduate education.

Taylor, now in her 40s, said she is finally feeling confident in her finances. But during the time she and her mother were making student-loan payments, they both sacrificed saving for retirement and emergencies.

“She was, like, ‘Girl, I had no money to put into a 401(k),’ and that was heartbreaking," Taylor said of her mother. “Between my mom and I, we missed out on at least two decades of compound interest on wealth while paying down debt."

‘Not a fair playing field’

Borrowers aged 50 to 61 hold more than $296 billion in outstanding student-loan debt, according to the data from Such a financial commitment has a lasting effect across generations.

“It dampens financial milestones," said Lowell Ricketts, data scientist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “You think about this debt balance then falling on multiple members of the household. It puts a lot of pressure on the borrower."

Nancy Pavelka, a 60-year-old mental-health counselor in Long Branch, N.J., has $358,000 in college debt: for her own advanced degree and Parent Plus loans for her two daughters.

“I didn’t want them to take out more loans because I knew it would ruin their life," she said.

Pavelka said she has seen the ripple effects student loans have on families in which several members hold student debt, and she worries for her daughters’ future financial security.

“It’s not a fair playing field," Pavelka said of the loans both she and her daughters had to take out as a result of the rising cost of a college education. “It’s just absurd."

Earlier this year, the Biden administration announced changes to income-driven repayment and public-service loan-forgiveness plans. These updates are designed to lower required monthly payments and speed up the path to forgiveness, which the Education Department said would help millions of borrowers across multiple ages and generations.

“I think we’re in a tough situation, and it’s hard for me to see a way forward that is quick and easy," said Monnica Chan, an assistant professor of higher education at University of Massachusetts-Boston.

Pavelka has worked with financial advisers to help minimize the toll monthly payments will again take on her budget, but is dreading October’s student-loan payment restart. After an expensive divorce and a house foreclosure, she has given up hope of retiring before age 70.

“I’ve always worked: at bars, at restaurants, I taught, I nannied. I’m not lazy. I’m not expecting a handout. It’s just daunting," she said of repaying student loans.

On the whole, Americans are retiring later than they have in the previous three decades, according to Gallup, and nonretired workers report feeling pessimistic about their financial preparations for later life.

Jameson and Melanie Ayotte, a 52-year-old physical therapist, are still at least 10 years away from retirement. Jameson said he is sometimes overwhelmed at the thought of continuing to pay off his own loans as his children just begin to chip away at theirs.

“What will happen in five, six, seven, eight years for us to look at retirement? What can we pass on, if anything?" he said. “It doesn’t even exist as far as we’re concerned. It’s so far-fetched."

Write to Julia Carpenter at

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