The prospect of paying for college is daunting for students and parents these days. But it’s even more troubling for boomers approaching or past retirement age who are still paying on student loans – not theirs, their kids’.
The number of people over 60 with outstanding college loans quadrupled from 2005 to 2015 from 700,000 to 2.8 million, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
That number is growing along with the number of retirees whose Social Security income is being garnished by the government to pay off student loans they took out or cosigned for, leaving many in poverty.
Others just keep on working, often wishing they had started that college fund when their children were born.
David Austin said he’s one of them. Married to lawyer Susan Austin, a former member of the El Paso City Council, he’s a former Washington lobbyist who’s now executive director of El Paso’s Kelly Memorial Food Pantry.
“As we reach retirement age, it takes a pretty good chunk of our monthly cash flow, especially because we had kids a little bit later than a lot of folks,” he said.
Their daughter went to the University of Texas at Austin and is handling her student debt. But their son went out of state to the University of Arizona, so his debt was considerably greater and he needs help paying off his loans.
“Had I done it differently, we would have setup a college fund as soon as the kids were born,” Austin said. “We were both making pretty decent incomes, and relied on current resources to pay expenses.
“But things can change pretty quickly.”
They are still looking at years of student loan payments.
Today, there are new ways of keeping college debt down, including early college high schools, dual college credit and advanced placement courses that can put students well on their way to a bachelor’s degree by the time they graduate from high school.
And there are well-aligned associate degree programs at El Paso Community College that ease the transition to University of Texas at El Paso. The total annual price for full-time enrollment at EPCC is $3,400 a year.
The average loan amount for UTEP undergraduates is nearly $6,600 a year.
Starting in 2003, a Texas Guaranteed Tuition Plan let parents lock in a tuition rate good for any public Texas college or university when their child was young and pay off that tuition over 10 years or so.
Then, when that child was ready for college, his or her tuition would be paid, even though tuition rates had risen.
El Paso architect Fred Dalbin and his wife Patricia, a public administrator, took part in that program and are happy they did.
“It was perfect. We started with the kids were very young, and we locked in four years of tuition and took out a loan and paid it off in 10 years,” he said. “When we bought it, it was $8,700 for both for four years.
“That’s what you’d pay for a year now. We paid maybe $11,000, including interest, but we got the equivalent at the time we used it of $27,000 in college tuition.”
“We were lucky we did it,” he said. “That saved us. But now they’ve stopped it because costs have increased so fast that the fund was losing money.”
While that is true, Texas has replaced the Guaranteed Tuition Plan in 2008 with the Texas Tuition Promise Fund, a similar prepaid tuition plan that lets parents lock-in tuition rates.
But it’s not an across-the-board tuition plan covering all the state’s colleges and universities. Instead, it offers three different levels of participation.
It may not be as rich as the original plan, but it offers great savings for parents who act when their children are young.
“Who knows what the cost of college is going to be in 15 years? But it’s going to be more than it is today,” said Kevin Lyons, spokesman for the Texas comptroller’s office, which oversees the program.
He noted that the deadline for locking in this coming fall’s tuition rates under the promise fund is Feb. 28.
There’s also the Texas College Savings Plan, which offers investment portfolios in which the growth is tax free as are withdrawals on earnings used to pay qualified higher-education expenses.
For information about the state programs, go to www.texastomorrowfunds.org.
Leila Melendez said she and her husband have an ambitious college-bound daughter in high school and they’re sweating the prospect of paying for her college.
“She wants to go into the medical field,” said Melendez, the chief operating officer at Workforce Solutions Borderplex. “Half of me says, ‘Go do what you want to do.’
“The other half of me says, ‘Don’t go somewhere that’s really expensive.’ I worry how we’ll ever pay for this because unless she’s valedictorian and gets a great scholarship, she’s going to have to foot the bill.”
UTEP is always an option, she conceded, but her daughter’s more interested in MIT or Baylor.
“All of her friends, they all want to leave,” Melendez said. “She wants to go somewhere else, which means paying for a dorm or an apartment.
“I told her she’ll have to get a job and work her way through. It’s a real dilemma.”
Melendez said she and her husband did start a college fund through an insurance plan when their daughter was born, but it won’t begin to cover four or more years of college.
That means student loans, and maybe a drastic move – literally.
“She’s looking at Baylor, so we’re thinking maybe we can quit our jobs, buy a home in Waco and get jobs there,” Melendez said. “But she has to decide, and she’s getting lots of mail from colleges.
“I want to encourage her, but I don’t know how we’re going to pay for it. We’re just going to pay forever.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.