Student Loan Debt Following Some into Retirement

A GAO study found many older Americans are having Social Security payments reduced in order to pay off student loans.

While many studies report about the burden of student loan debt on Millennials and how this may affect their retirement savings, an Aon Hewitt study found student loan debt and the associated consequences are issues that span generations, with 44% of Millennials reporting having student loans along with 26% of Generation Xers and 13% of Baby Boomers.

Now, a report from the Government Accountability Office confirms that student loan debt can follow Americans into retirement and affect their retirement income.

GAO says older Americans—those in or approaching retirement—and other borrowers who default on their federal student loans are subject to a number of actions to recover outstanding debt, including Social Security offsets. In fiscal year 2015, 49.7% of collections of defaulted student loan debt was generated from offsets of federal payments through the Treasury Offset Program, including but not limited to Social Security offsets.

GAO’s analysis of data from Education, Treasury, and the Social Security Administration (SSA) shows that the number of borrowers, especially older borrowers, who have experienced offsets of Social Security benefits to repay defaulted federal student loans has increased over time. From fiscal years 2002 through 2015, the number of defaulted federal student loan borrowers of any age with Social Security offsets increased from about 36,000 to 173,000.

NEXT: Student loan offsets bite into retirement income

About 44% of borrowers 50 and older at the time of their initial offset saw the maximum possible amount of their Social Security benefit withheld, equal to 15% of their benefit payment. The offset for the remaining 56% was less than the maximum 15% of their benefit payment. Most of these borrowers had between 10% and 15% of their benefit payment offset.

Older borrowers who remain in offset may increasingly experience financial hardship. Such is the case for a growing number of older borrowers whose Social Security benefits have fallen below the poverty guideline because the offset threshold is not adjusted for increases in costs of living. In fiscal year 2004, about 8,300 borrowers in the 50 and older age category had benefits below the poverty guideline compared to almost 67,300 in fiscal year 2015. As a share of borrowers in the 50 and older age category, this growth was equivalent to an increase from 38% in fiscal year 2004 to 64% in fiscal year 2015. In addition, a growing number of these older borrowers already received Social Security benefits below the poverty guideline before offsets further reduced their income.

The GAO noted that nearly one-third of older borrowers were able to pay off their loans or cancel their debt by obtaining relief through a process known as a total and permanent disability (TPD) discharge, which is available to borrowers with a disability that is not expected to improve.

The GAO suggests that Congress consider adjusting Social Security offset provisions to reflect the increased cost of living. It is also making five recommendations to Education, including that it clarify documentation requirements for permitted relief resulting from disability. Education generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

The GAO report may be downloaded from here.