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Student loans stretch across generations, survey says; Boomers pay the most monthly

Surprised? Boomers took out loans for their kids — and grandkids — and the bill’s coming due.

Baby Boomers are paying $620 a month on an average loan balance of $58,300, according to a survey by Fidelity.
Baby Boomers are paying $620 a month on an average loan balance of $58,300, according to a survey by Fidelity.Read moreDreamstime / TNS

When federal student loan payments resume in February, baby boomers will shoulder the highest repayments among the demographic groups by paying $620 a month on an average loan balance of $58,300. Boomers, many retired, are those Americans in their late 50s, 60s and 70s.

The youngest student borrowers, meanwhile, the Generation Z debtors in their early 20s, will pay the least at $480 a month on a balance of $27,900, according to data from Fidelity, the giant Boston-based investment firm, which gleaned data from its online student debt tool.

The Fidelity survey is the latest evidence of the broad sweep of the nation’s $1.7 trillion in student debt as older Americans who paid for career-enhancing education or helped relatives pay for school struggle with student loans. Boomers pay even more than younger adults who delay buying homes and other life milestones to pay down loans.

Generation Xers, or those in the 40s through mid-50s, will pay $490 a month and millennials, those between 25 and 40 years old, will pay $510, according to Fidelity.

The data come from 60,000 users of a Fidelity online calculator tool as of Sept. 30. The borrowers, who typically carried multiple debts, were repaying a total of 210,000 loans and worked at 6,000 firms or organizations. There was no information on the length of the loans.

The U.S. Department of Education paused monthly student loan payments during the COVID-19 pandemic, while private student lenders continued to collect payments. Most student loans are owed to the U.S. government.

Two of the largest student loan servicers, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (FedLoan) and Navient, opted against renewing their federal contracts. More than 10 million borrowers are expected to be assigned new servicers, which some have warned could lead to chaos and confusion.

» READ MORE: Parent PLUS borrowers stealing from their retirement to fund kids’ college education, survey says

“We continue to see the impact of student debt across generations, and it’s a surprise to continue seeing that amount [of loans] held across the population,” said Amanda Hahnel, the head of student debt retirement at Fidelity Investments.

In addition, boomers are borrowing from themselves — against their retirement funds — to help pay off student loans. “Older generations are also dipping into their retirements, taking out 401(k) loans to pay back student debt. That’s a mark of financial hardship,” she added.

Hahnel said there are more younger borrowers than older borrowers. But boomers have higher loan balances and pay higher interest rates on the loans, based on the survey. One leading factor is that terms for PLUS loans, which are taken out by parents, contain higher interest rates than other loan types for students.

Federal data also show that the number of borrowers older than 50 has grown in recent years while those under 25 have declined.

NerdWallet, a San Francisco financial website, said last month that one in four American parents who borrowed from the federal government to help pay for a child’s college education doesn’t expect to retire as planned because of student debt.

And one in five parent borrowers regrets taking out the loans, the NerdWallet survey showed.

Of the total $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, older Americans borrowed roughly $103 billion in PLUS loans in the second quarter of 2021. There are 3.6 million Parent PLUS borrowers, and the average loan totals more than $28,000.

NerdWallet warned that parents borrowing for children’s college education are stealing future retirement dollars.

» READ MORE: Philly-area residents pay off more student debt — nearly $40,000, on average — than graduates in San Francisco and New York (from May 2020)

Fidelity manages about $11.1 trillion in assets and helps 38 million people invest their savings, the firm says. It has 52,000 employees.

According to Fidelity, student borrowers with the highest loan balances and highest monthly payments are those who work in private health-care and social assistance. They pay $713 a month with a loan balance of $72,004. Borrowers in retail pay $507 a month, and those in manufacturing fork out $510 a month.

Employers also are increasingly sponsoring student loan repayment matches, with about one in 10 employers offering the benefit, Fidelity found. The figure is expected to jump by 300% in 2021, surging to one in three employers now that the matches are tax-free, according to the Society of Human Resources Management. Among companies for which Fidelity serves as student debt benefits administrator are tech company Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and insurer Unum.