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'A Family Affair': Others Often Chip In To Help Pay Off Student Loans

Nearly 40% of student loan payers are helping someone else pay off their student loans, a new study found.
Nearly 40% of student loan payers are helping someone else pay off their student loans, a new study found.

Many people with student loans aren't carrying the burden of their debt alone. The mountain of debt weighs down their families, too.

"Student loan repayment is really a family affair," says Fiona Greig, director of consumer research at the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

The number of people 60 and older with student loan debt has been increasing, with many of those loans taken out by parents and grandparents to help younger family members pay for college.

Now a new study by the JPMorgan Chase Institute says nearly 40% of student loan payers are helping someone else pay off their student loans. And 27% of these helpers hold no student loan debt themselves.

"The promise of a student loan in a very specific way is: I go to school, I get a degree, I get human capital in my brain, which allows me to earn more in the future," Greig says.

Under the CARES Act for pandemic relief and a subsequent extension by the Trump administration, interest and payments have been suspended on federal student loans through Dec. 31.

Student loan debt tops $1.5 trillion, but there was a sharp decline in missed debt payments under the federal suspension.

"Putting a pause of student loan payments is great, especially with the climate we're in," Greig says. "But those payments are still going to eventually need to be made and for lower-income Black borrowers this becomes a 'debt trap.' "

The study, which analyzed data from in 2015-2016, says Black borrowers are likely to face a student debt "trap," where their loan balances grow instead of shrink over time. About 13% of Black borrowers are likely to never pay off their student loans.

Greig notes that the wage gap between Blacks and whites also makes it more difficult for Blacks to pay off their loans. And Black families have only 32 cents in liquid assets for every dollar white families have, the study says, meaning they have far fewer reserves to help them weather financial shocks.

This comes as the price of college has been increasing. Tuition at four-year public colleges jumped 37% in the 10 years ending in 2018, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"With the pandemic going on and so many families going through difficult times, some students might not finish their degree," Greig says. "And I worry that they might be stuck with student loan debt from a degree they couldn't even finish because the cost of tuition was just too much. So now you have a partial degree and debt."

Adedayo Akala is an intern on the NPR Business Desk.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.