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Average Student Loan Debt Rises 47 Percent among Middle-Aged Students

December 29, 2011

Student loan debt incurred by students in their 30s and 40s has increased rapidly over the past several years. An analysis of more than 3 million credit reports provided to Reuters found that since 2009, average student loan debt among students age 35 to 49 increased 47 percent. Additional data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) also reveals the heavy use of student loans by middle-aged undergraduates. NCES’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) shows that the percentage of undergraduates between the ages of 35 and 49 who had any student loan debt jumped from 36 percent in 2004 to 46 percent in 2008 (the most recent year of available NPSAS data). The cumulative education-related debt among these middle-aged borrowers jumped 27 percent in this four-year period. In contrast, debt among students under age 35 increased about 24 percent. In 2008, according to the NCES data, for middle-aged borrowers the average cumulative educational loan debt (which includes federal student loans and non-federal loans) was $15,359, while younger borrowers had an average of $13,729.

Recession, Proprietary School Borrowers Driving the Growth of Debt

Reuters cites two main causes for the rapid increase of educational debt among middle-aged students. First is that since the onset of the economic recession, many more older persons are attending higher education institutions to retrain for new jobs. The U.S. Department of Education’s Digest of Education Statistics shows that the number of persons 35 and older attending American postsecondary institutions jumped from roughly 3.1 million in 2007 to more than 3.8 million in 2009. Second, these new older students have been more likely than younger ones to attend private for-profit (proprietary) schools, which tend to charge higher tuition and other fees while offering fewer grants to help students pay their educational expenses. In 2009, about 18 percent of students age 35 to 49 attended proprietary institutions, compared with 5 percent of those between 18 and 24 and 9 percent of all undergraduates, according to the Digest of Education Statistics. In addition, data from NPSAS reveal that 94 percent of the middle-aged students at proprietary schools had student loan debt, compared with 54 percent at four-year public colleges and universities and 28 percent at two-year public (community) colleges.

U.S. Department of Education projections show that the number of persons age 35 and older attending college will top 4 million by 2019. It is thus possible that borrowing trends among these students will continue to grow as well.


Ken Redd
Director, Research and Policy Analysis