3 generations share 1 problem: Student debt

It is the massive — and growing — financial burden weighing on three generations in the U.S.: student debt. Up to 40 percent of Americans have had to put off financial and personal goals in order to repay their college loans, data show.

According to a recent survey by AARP and the American Association of Young People, an advocacy group focused on reducing student debt, more than a third of millennials and baby boomers report not being able to buy because of difficulty repaying that debt. A quarter of Gen-Xers said they’d been unable to buy a car because of student loans. 

The findings are based on a survey of 5,000 adults. The average total student debt by generation among those who carried education loans was similar: $41,000 for millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996, according to the Census Bureau); $39,000 for Gen-X (1965-1980) and $38,000 for boomers (1946 to 1964). 

That debt is also endangering retirement for some boomers. Roughly a third of Americans in that age range who still carry student loans said repaying the debt hampered them from putting money away.

College debt in the U.S. recently hit a new milestone, surpassing $1.5 trillion for the first time, while the cost of higher education continues to rise an average of 3 percent per year. Student debt has continued to rise even as the U.S. economy has strengthened and as Americans have pared other kinds of debt. 

The shifting economics are causing some Americans to rethink the value of college. A majority of respondents in each generation group told the AARP the cost of college wasn’t worth the payoff. And more than two-thirds of those surveyed think colleges and universities should share the financial responsibility with students who default on their loans.  

Despite the potential financial repercussion of borrowing to pay for school, however, labor data show that investing in education generally pays off. College graduates tend to have significantly higher lifetime earnings than those without degrees and are also more likely to be employed. A recent Hamilton project report found the employment rate for college-educated Americans stands at about 73 percent, compared with 55 percent for those with just a high school degree.

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