I could be paying my student loans until I'm 77

Christopher Kirkpatrick is a business editor for the Detroit Free Press.

It's possible that in 2045, when I'm 77 and perhaps thinking about a new hip, I might be making my very last student loan payment.

If I accept new terms, including a much, much lower monthly payment, I would not be done until 50 years after I made the first payment as a rookie, fresh-faced reporter.

That's a half-century. Yikes. I wonder if my estate would be responsible for my loans?

Student loan debt is not just the financial albatross of millennial financial mobility. It also has my Gen-X budget a little strained.

It's not too bad, really just a minor blip, and I should point out that I don't have medical or law school-type debt in the six figures. The interest also is tax deductible, though it doesn't add up to much of a break in the end.


Despite the allure of really low payments, I'll reject these new terms, offered up out of the blue. I called my loan provider a couple weeks ago to update my contact information and they offered me the new terms.

In fact, I'm going to keep paying monthly, and even more aggressively, to get the student loan monkey off my back.

Even so, the offer got me thinking about the burden, not only on millennials, but also shared by a fair number of fortysomethings like myself.

Here are some sobering, perhaps surprising, statistics about student loan debt, according to federal reports:

--Unpaid student loan debt increased $38 billion the last quarter of 2014 to a record $1.2 trillion, according to the New York Federal Reserve.

--More than 11 percent of that debt is 90-days-plus delinquent, doing damage to credit scores needed to secure mortgages.

--Those ages 50 and over with student loans represent 17 percent of the total, about a 30 percent increase in the past decade, according to a Federal Reserve study.

--Despite all the bad press related to loan debt, college in general still pays for itself over several years: Median annual earnings were $23,000 higher for U.S. bachelor's degree holders compared with high school graduates in 2014, according to a federal report.


--The unemployment rate for U.S. bachelor's degree holders was nearly half that of those with only a high school diploma, 6 percent versus 3.5 percent in 2014, according to a federal report.

I picked up my student debt paying tuition to attend the University of Maryland graduate school of journalism's public affairs reporting program just a stone's throw from Washington, D.C. They were Stafford loans backed by the government, executed with nifty provisions making it very easy to put off paying principal for years.

After graduating, I took a job in Durham, N.C., at the Herald-Sun daily newspaper. Eventually, over 15 years and several pit stops, I made my way back to my hometown news organization, the Detroit Free Press.

I did drag my feet on repayment early on when I was making $11 an hour as a journalist in the early 1990s, putting off the monthly bill so I could eat, and perhaps drink a few beers. But I'm going to lay more of the blame on a public policy that allows student loan debt to balloon for some who put it off or simply can't pay. And the loans cannot be extinguished in bankruptcy.

I only bring up the B word because some students don't make it professionally or financially, and they are forever stuck with the debt, a financial life sentence. We've written about twentysomethings living in their parents' basements or cobbling together income from a series of part-time jobs that don't have benefits or enough extra income to dispatch the loan debt without extra interest accruing.

I'm not sure what the solution is, or what combination of proven programs is needed to make a dent. I've been impressed with certain scholarship programs in several states that guarantee school admission for free for having a certain high school grade point average, or other programs that forgive student loan debt for those who teach students in impoverished or otherwise challenged school districts.

For my Stafford federally backed loans, less-than-interest-only payments and forbearance are allowed. Forbearance is a period of nonpayment — a get-out-of-jail-free card — that's granted if you go back to school or just say, "Hey, I don't feel like paying for a while."

On some student loans, the federal government covers the accruing interest while you're back in school. But on other types, or if you just need a break or don't have a job, the interest is capitalized, meaning it is rolled into the loan and made part of the principal. And then you're charged interest on that. It's a vicious merry-go-round for some.


I'm lucky. I have a steady job that I love, and I can pay. And I do owe the money fair and square for what was a life-changing graduate-school education. The two years included a month in Eastern Europe — just a couple years after the Berlin Wall fell — helping student newspapers learn the ins and outs of what we referred to then as "fact-based" American journalism.

So it's been well worth it for me. But if you can't get a job or are one of those 11 percent with a 90-days-plus delinquency over your head and your credit is in disrepair, the pursuit of higher education might feel like a millstone around your neck instead of a step toward the American Dream.

And I fear a day of reckoning is approaching as an entire generation threatens a record default.

As to whether my heirs would have to pay my debt off, they won't. Student loans die with you.

But that's not much of a plan for getting rid of student loans.

Debt bring down

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