Student Debt Impacts Parents, Too


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Written by Rochelle Burnside | Last Updated February 24th, 2020
Rochelle Burnside produces content on business services. Her advice has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, and more.

Debt Tied Up

Parents all over the United States are giving up savings, retirement, and even mental and emotional health to pay for college — Robyn Flint has one of these stories.

Like many other parents, she pursued her own degree. "At the age of 39, I went to college for the first time to get my four-year degree," Flint says. "I chose an in-state college for the smaller tuition and their military family discount. I graduated and decided to pursue my MS. For nine years I accumulated student loans. I was unable to pay for my tuition out of pocket because I had two teenagers at home preparing to graduate from high school and head to college. We were living paycheck to paycheck."

This is becoming increasingly common, as a recent study from Freedom Debt Relief pointed out. There are 329 million Americans and 44 million with student debt. That means that 13 percent of the U.S. population is in a debt that amounts to over $1.6 trillion, and the number of debtors and the sum of the debt is only predicted to grow.

"My husband and I agreed to pay a certain amount towards tuition for each of my sons," Flint continues. "The rest was their responsibility. Today, our combined student loan debt with the portions I am paying for my boys, I owe over $140,000 in student loans. Just typing that number makes me stop and have a nervous twitch."

The average student wracks up over $37,000 in debt; graduate degrees push this average higher.

"The monthly charge to reimburse student loans is unreal and unreasonable," Flint explains. "I work tirelessly to make sure my bills are paid. But, that amount means I won’t be retiring unless I win the lottery." And Flint is no slouch. She is a writer at and is a founding owner of Property Wise, LLC. But it's not her fault alone, nor the fault of her sons for chosing higher education.

A recent survey from Freedom Debt Relief found that 93 percent of college attendees and grads and 89 percent of parents think student debt is a financial crisis. This is an overwhelming majority.

What else do these parents think? What else are other parents sacrificing for an education for themselves and for their kids? Freedom Debt Relief’s findings were illuminating, and they indicate that the public is itching for a solution.

Who is impacted by the student debt crisis?

If you thought students were the only ones taking a blow, it’s time to reevaluate that assumption. While students are seeing the brunt of the impact, parents are also struggling with their loans.

Forty-two percent of parents surveyed said they gave up on saving for retirement. Another 42 percent said they gave up on saving for vacation. Thirty-seven percent feel overwhelmed about their financial situation.

And while these are smaller than the figures we see from graduate and student respondents, they still represent another generation’s struggles with the same problem.

Some analysts have viewed this as a problem affecting millennials, but these students haven’t accrued debt in a vacuum. Their parents and family members are also affected by the student debt crisis, and older generations are feeling the push toward secondary education if they want to continue to work.

And remember the statistic that the average student debt is $37,000? Parents took out $16,100 in student loans on average for 2014 alone. Right now, the average parent PLUS balance is over $15,000 per year. This number grows for each child a parent supports through school. Nine percent of parents in 2014 started repayment on a debt of over $100,000. It stands to reason that the debt has only grown.

It's understandable that, with her own graduate loans and the loans for her children, Flint has taken on substantial debt.

What do parents want to do about student debt?

It should be noted that both parents and students surveyed expressed some lack of knowledge regarding student loans and the proposals made to combat their effects. Less than half (48 percent) of grads knew the definition of a subsidized loan, and 46 percent of parents knew the definition. There was a lack of knowledge for loan terms and types. Perhaps it was taught to neither the parents nor the students, and perhaps the terms didn’t apply to particular respondents’ situations.

Despite this, both groups had some ideas about how student debt could be mitigated.

A majority of grads believed that the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program should be expanded (63 percent), that there should be free or subsidized tuition for low-income households (54 percent), and that the government should offer tax breaks for companies implementing student debt repayment programs.

Similarly, around half of parents agreed that companies should have debt repayment tax breaks and that governments should expand PSLF. Flint echoed this sentiment about public service loan forgiveness.

"I feel like if a college student is willing to serve in the military . . . for a minimum of four years following graduation from college, their debt should be forgiven," she says. "The debt forgiveness programs that are for those who work for 10 years in a non-profit setting or other approved setting should apply to other businesses as well."

While certain sectors of public service can apply for forgiveness after 10 years of on-time loan repayment, only 1% of applications are approved. Many graduates who thought PSLF was their ticket to relief have been denied, and they continue to struggle with their loans in low-paying public service jobs. The What You Can Do For Your Country Act is one recent policy proposal made to address this grievance.

Flint also had a few more ideas, some of which are already policy proposals gaining bipartisan support. "I believe that interest rates on student loans should be lowered," Flint explains. "If I can buy a house at only 4 percent interest, why does an education cost me over 6 percent each month?" Many Americans have a similar sentiment that the College for All plan addresses: 71 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans support Sanders’s proposal to reduce student loan interest to 2.32 percent, guaranteeing it will never rise over 8.25 percent.

Flint also echoed the sentiment of 54 percent of grads who believe in offering subsidized or discounted tuition to those who need it. "What about giving breaks to those who pay out of pocket for their education?" she suggests. "Offer discounted tuition to encourage accruing less debt. Instead, people are giving their hard-earned paychecks to pay for their education that cost as much or more than a house."

Additionally, Flint believes that we need to incentivize employers to help their employees with repayment. "More employers that require degrees should be helping their employees relieve themselves of the student loan burden," she asserts. "Offer a retention program where employers will pay a portion of the employee's student loan debt each year they remain with the company." The Employer Participation in Repayment Act is campaigning to create tax-free repayment programs for employers. This would put loan repayment in the same tax-free category as tuition reimbursement.

But Flint's last argument reached the core of the problem: employers are responsible for the ubiquitous demand for a degree, and no policy has concocted a comprehensive solution to stop the driver of student debt at its source. "Some employers are looking for four-year degrees when hiring but offer a salary that isn’t competitive," Flint says, voicing a rising complaint among Americans. "Frankly, many advertised positions requiring degrees shouldn’t need a degree." 

This survey, and Flint's suggestions, show that a lot of ideas are floating around about what should be done; consumers seem to be becoming more open to these ideas. This openness indicates greater pressure on lawmakers, universities, employers, and individuals to do something.

And additionally, the web is full of tips for parents on paying down student debt. The growing coverage and aid is bringing more attention to the issue.

Read also: Here are Six Major 2019 Policy Proposals More People Need to Talk About

Wrapping it up

Freedom Debt Relief’s analysis contains all the metrics. The survey illuminates the issue and brings more understanding to the growing crisis affecting our economy.

Robyn Flint's story is becoming increasingly common, but Americans in student loan debt don't stand alone. With more research showcasing the increasing numbers, and with more individuals making it a personal and public priority to tackle the issue, we can hope that student debt will be on the decline within a decade.

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