'I am more than grateful:' Millions of Americans over 50 may benefit from Biden's student loan forgiveness plan

Students are pictured holding their caps at a graduation ceremony.

By Katie Lobosco and Tami Luhby, CNN

(CNN) -- If it weren't for her student loan debt, Lark Abelson would already be retired.

The 63-year-old took out $5,000 in loans more than 20 years ago to get an associate degree in computer technology from Wor-Wic Community College in Maryland to try to make a better life for herself and her younger daughter. But she wasn't able to find work in the field and remained in low-paying retail jobs that prevented her from paying back the debt. After enrolling in income-driven repayment plans several times, she went into default a few years ago.

Abelson, who lives outside of Ocean City, Maryland, was afraid to quit her job and rely on Social Security because the federal government can withhold part of her monthly checks to repay the debt.

But the federal student loan debt relief plan that President Joe Biden announced in late August has given Abelson new hope. Though she hasn't checked her balance lately, she thinks it will wipe out what she owes. She's already asked to be notified when she can apply for forgiveness and has taken the first step toward signing up for Social Security benefits.

"Because I know this is coming through, I actually started the process of claiming Social Security the day after Biden announced it," Abelson said of the debt relief plan. "I am more than grateful."

There are nearly 9 million federal student loan borrowers like Abelson who are over the age of 50. They account for nearly 20% of the roughly 43 million federal student loan borrowers.

And the number of older borrowers with student loan debt has been on the rise. About 1.6 million more borrowers over the age of 50 have federal student loan debt now than in 2017, according to federal student loan data.

Not every older borrower will qualify for Biden's student loan forgiveness. Their income must be under $125,000 a year (or $250,000 for couples) in order to be eligible -- the same income threshold for all borrowers. Borrowers must also have federal loans. Private student loans are excluded.

Eligible borrowers can see up to $10,000 of their student debt forgiven. Those who received a Pell grant while enrolled in college are eligible for up to $20,000 of forgiveness. Pell grants are awarded to millions of low-income students each year, based on factors including their family's size and income and the college cost.

There are several reasons why more older borrowers are still paying off student loan debt. Some borrowed federal student loans to help their children pay for college, the price of which has risen faster than inflation, while others may be still paying off debts from their own education.

And if borrowers fall into default, they could lose some of their Social Security benefits. In 2015, the latest data available, the government reduced Social Security checks for a total of 173,000 Americans of all ages, up 380% from 36,000 in 2002.

Among those who were over the age of 50, three-quarters owed loans only for their own education, and most owed less than $10,000 at the time of the initial Social Security garnishment.

Nearly 40% of federal student loan borrowers age 65 and older are in default, according to a 2017 report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Some parents borrow to help their children pay for college

Parents can apply for what's called a Parent PLUS loan from the federal government to help their children pay for college. About 3.6 million people currently have outstanding Parent PLUS loans, totaling more than $107 billion, according to government data.

The Parent PLUS loans were first made available in 1980 and are meant to cover the financial gap if the student's loans do not pay for the full cost. The parent loans usually carry a higher interest rate than the student's federal loans, and payments must be made while the child is still in school unless the parent requests a deferment.

When James and Mary Stone took out federal Parent PLUS loans to help their two sons afford college decades ago, they did not think they would still be saddled with the debt in their late 60s.

The North Carolina couple still owe $29,000, though they have been making payments for years. Just before the pandemic began, they were sending in around $400 a month as part of an income-driven repayment plan.

After Mary Stone lost her job as a webmaster last year, they sold their home and rented a smaller one so they could retire.

Having at least part of that debt forgiven would be a big relief for the Stones, especially since James Stone was diagnosed with cancer in May. The couple doesn't yet know how much his treatment will cost, but a smaller monthly loan payment will give them more breathing room.

"It will mean that I can put my time and energy into caring for my husband's needs at home, rather than taking a low-paying job to help pay this loan," Mary Stone said, noting that her sons are still contending with their own student loans from college.

Some student debt balances explode over time

If borrowers stop making payments on their loans, the balance continues to grow because of interest. Unlike other debt, it's very difficult to get student loan debt discharged in bankruptcy.

Franco Tompeterini is thankful that $10,000 of his student loans will be forgiven, though he wishes it was more since his balance has ballooned to $88,000 in the 25 years since he finished college.

A US Air Force veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, Tompeterini took out about $34,000 in loans so he could obtain a bachelor's degree from American National University after he left the military.

After making monthly payments for a few years, Tompeterini had to move back home to take care of his elderly parents. Unable to find a job in his field, he took a lower-paying one and allowed his loans to go into default for about a decade before entering into an income-driven repayment plan about 15 years ago. But the payments didn't even cover all of the interest, much less chip away at the principal. So the amount he owed just grew and grew.

The government offers several income-driven repayment plans that lower monthly payments for borrowers who are struggling to pay off their loans. Generally, an income-driven plan caps payments at 10% of a borrower's discretionary income.

While the lower payments help borrowers stay out of default, their monthly payment may no longer cover the interest accumulated each month. In that case, the outstanding debt total continues to grow. Biden plans to propose a new income-driven plan where the government would cover unpaid interest.

Tompeterini's student loan debt prevented him from buying a home or socking away money in the bank.

"I really don't have a future," said Tompeterini, who lives in Rogers, Arkansas, and works as a property manager. "At the age of 60, I should be thinking about retirement and what I'm going to do. Now I'm going to have to probably work until I drop dead. And I'm still going to have student loans that are that are going to be owed. They'll be finally written off after I've passed on."

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