Till debt do us part: Aging Americans grapple with student loan debt 

  • More than a quarter of Gen Z don’t think higher education is worth the expense. 
  • Nearly half of Gen Z respondents feel uncomfortable with the notion of taking on student loan debt. 
  • Meanwhile, Gen X+ is still paying down debt – ~4.8 million Credit Karma members over the age of 45 have outstanding student loan debt. 

Higher education has gotten incredibly expensive, and many Americans are struggling to pay it off.  These days, more than half of college students leave school with debt, amounting to $28,950 on average per borrower. That’s a lot of money when you consider 56% of Americans currently live paycheck-to-paycheck. At a time when Americans are grappling with high inflation, stagnant wages and unaffordable housing, it raises the question – is the cost of higher education worth it? If you ask Gen Z, the answer may be no. 

According to a recent study conducted by Qualtrics on behalf of Credit Karma, more than one in four (26%) zoomers don’t think the return on investment for higher education is worth the expense. Meanwhile, another 48% of Gen Z respondents don’t feel comfortable taking on student loan debt altogether. 

There are many reasons why young people have lost faith in America’s higher education system, which today has amassed $1.75 trillion in consumer debt. However, the fear of student loan debt outlasting us, could be a leading factor, especially as older generations remain burdened by their student loan debt.

When it comes to student loan debt, age is just a number 

Student loan debt plagues millions of Americans for years on end – in fact, we find that Credit Karma members with student loans have open accounts for 7.5 years, on average. Yet, it’s not just young Americans who are financially burdened, older generations are suffering too. In fact, according to data from Credit Karma, nearly a quarter (23%) of Credit Karma members who have student loan debt are above the age of 45 and many still have a long way to go until they’re free of that debt. According to the analysis, the average outstanding balance for borrowers 45 and older is $47k. To put this into perspective, Credit Karma members hold roughly 46% of the total student loan debt in America. That’s 21 million Americans and $803 billion in student loan debt. 

Here is a look at the breakdown of Credit Karma members over the age of 45 who have outstanding student loan debt: 

Age Bracket Member CountAverage Debt Balance
45-54 years 2.9 million$49K
55-64 years1.4 million$48K
65+ years 464K$44K

Resumed payments could spell trouble for millions of Americans

According to a separate Credit Karma study of student loan holders conducted in October 2021, 58% said their financial stability was dependent on the pausing of payments through the forbearance program, while 63% were concerned about their ability to make payments once the forbearance period ended. At this point in time, one-third of respondents did not feel financially stable. Now, more than half of Americans say their financial situation has worsened since the start of the pandemic, and a quarter of older Americans have had to delay retirement due to the impact of inflation. 

As we near what could be the end of the federal pause on student loan payments, which gave millions of Americans more than two years off from their federal student loan payment obligations, it’s possible many borrowers will be caught on the backfoot, financially. This may be true for the 12.7 million Credit Karma members who have not been making payments toward their federal student loans during forbearance, which accounts for 90% of all federal student loan holders on Credit Karma’s platform. 

“It’s troubling to think that so many Americans are faring worse financially than they were during the pandemic as inflation touches nearly every aspect of their lives,” said Colleen McCreary, consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma. “One silver lining of the pandemic was the relief measures introduced across many aspects of consumers’ financial lives, including student loans. Now, many of those who are struggling to make ends meet may  face yet another financial obstacle, if their monthly student loan payment obligations are added back to their debt loads. And, for those older and more vulnerable Americans, their Social Security benefits are at risk if they default on their loans.”


This survey was conducted online within the United States by Qualtrics on behalf of Credit Karma from June 10 to June 15, 2022 among 1,022 U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 25.