Student loans after 40: Is your retirement doomed?

Older students have some challenges — and advantages — over traditional students.

  • By Alessandra Malito,
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Bootsie Martinez has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, a master's degree in writing and a certificate in forensic linguistics. But she wants to learn more, and at 55, is studying for her Ph.D. in forensic linguistics.

The scholar was accepted as a teaching assistant, where she receives tuition and health care in exchange for teaching a few courses. Even still, she has bills to pay — so she took out student loans to help fund her cost of living and the extra costs associated with going back to school. This is the first time she has ever taken student loans (she's always paid as she went for her other degrees) and said she already sees the effects these loans are having on her. "I check my FICO score and it's like 'your score could be higher, try paying down student loans,'" she said.

Most college graduates are in their early 20s when they leave university, but a growing number of older Americans are slinging a backpack over their shoulders and heading into the classroom.

There were more than 2.2 million students 35 years and older in college and graduate school in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, up from 401,000 in 1970 (and a little more than 1 million in 1980). By 2026, that figure is expected to rise to 2.4 million.

Why are older Americans going back to school? For some, it may be as part of a career change. Others simply do it for fun and a love for learning. While students — like Martinez — are using the extra education to develop new skills to better themselves in their current jobs.

Forensic linguistics is where language meets the law, she said, and she hopes with her new education she'll be able to train law enforcement in how to analyze written statements, conduct effective interviews and implement investigation techniques.

Of course, going back to school — especially for a degree and not a few courses — is a major financial decision, and putting a career on hold could mean lost savings for retirement, something coming sooner for an older student than one in his or her 20s. "If you're going back to earn more money or further your career, you have to make sure it makes financial sense," said Sean Moore, a financial adviser at SMART College Funding in Boca Raton, Fla.

Not only are these adult students laying out a lot of money for a degree, but they're also taking time away from family, he added. Older students tend to focus on what they want, need or can get out of a program, compared with traditional students, who are also considering campus activities and dorming, he said.

If it does make sense, but you need some money upfront to pay for education, there are a few options. If you have a 401(k), you can take a loan, though Moore doesn't advise it. Instead, Stafford loans, which is the type of federal loan most students use to pay for college, allows older adults to take out more than traditional students. (Stafford loans can be subsidized or unsubsidized, the latter of which accrues interest from the moment the loan begins).

For your typical dependent student, the limit is $5,500 a year, but for older borrowers, it can be as much as $9,500, Moore said. Because older students typically opt for lower-cost programs, the higher limit means they don't need to rely on additional loans from private institutions.

Still interested in going back to school? Here are a few things to consider, according to Ashford University. Think about what you'd major in and why, and if you want to earn your degree online or on campus.

When it's time to hit the books, give yourself time to adjust to this new schedule and what you'll need to make the most of your education. Set realistic goals, especially since you'll likely be balancing numerous responsibilities inside and outside of the classroom and if you become discouraged, remember why you started.

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