older man with forehead against wall Consumer Financial Protection Bureau data says thatAmericans over 60 are the fastest-growing category of student loanborrowers and that they have “roughly quadrupled in number between2005 and 2015.” (Photo: Getty)

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AARP is wading into the fight over student loans, taking up the cause in somestate capitals to more tightly regulate abusive student loancollection practices.

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Among its actions: battling the federal government over SocialSecurity garnishment to collect on defaulted loans by olderborrowers, and pursuing greater transparency in fees andtuition.

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Related: 10 states with the highest averagestudent loan debt

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AARP? Really? Yes, says a Politico report, which points to theConsumer Financial Protection Bureau data saying that Americansover 60 are the fastest-growing category of student loan borrowersand that they have “roughly quadrupled in number between 2005 and2015.”

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And that poses a threat to retirement, since “[a]lthough older borrowersstill account for just a sliver of the more than $1.5 trillion intotal outstanding student loan debt, they're more likely thanyounger borrowers to be behind on payments,” says the report.

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Not all of it is their debt, of course; most of them areactually paying off loans they took out for their kids orgrandkids. But the result is the same: They're stuck on thebusiness end of loans that can take 20–30 years to repay.

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Related: Student loan debt benefits more popularwith workers than employers

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The report quotes Lori Trawinski, director of banking andfinance at the AARP Public Policy Institute, saying, “We considerit a looming threat,” adding, “The idea that you could have studentloan debt of your own that lasts 20 or 30 years, and then pick upsome for your child that could last another 20 or 30 years—you'relooking at a lifetime of carrying student loan debt in some form.Depending on one's income level, that that can really hamper theability to have financial security” in retirement.”

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Although mortgages and credit card debt still amount to more, indollars and cents, than student loans for retirees, that may not bethe case forever. Student debt is growing so fast that a CFPBanalysis of New York Federal Reserve data finds that the number ofAmerican borrowers over age 60 has ballooned from 2005's 700,000 to2.8 million in 2015.

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And lenders don't hesitate to garnish Social Security checks toget back payments for student loans—something that AARP opposes.Student loans are tougher to discharge for borrowers in troublethan other types of debt, and the feds let the Education Departmentraid “safety-net benefits to recoup defaulted federal studentloans”—something it's been doing more and more as greater numbersof older borrowers get caught short.

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In fact, says the report, Government Accountability Officefigures indicate that in the 2015 fiscal year “the governmentgarnished the Social Security benefits of almost 114,000 studentloan borrowers over 50 years old, reducing their benefits, onaverage, by more than $140 per month.” That makes it tough to getby, especially if Social Security provides a major portion ofretirement income.

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AARP isn't the only group to oppose garnishment; the NationalCommittee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, which is anonprofit advocacy group lobbying to protect seniors' benefits, ison the same side of the fight.

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The report points to Dan Adcock, the organization's director ofgovernment relations and policy, characterizing student loan debtas one more weight added to workers' efforts to get through anoverall retirement crisis that already challenges them with“stagnant wages and employers who no longer offer retirementbenefits.” Adcock is quoted saying, “On top of that you havestudent loan debt, and that's going to make your situation evenworse in terms of saving for retirement.”

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While some Democrats have introduced legislation to preventgarnishment of Social Security for student loans, and have calledfor more federal money for public colleges and universities so thatinstitutions can eliminate tuition for some students, as well aslowering interest rates on existing student loan debt, someconservative lawmakers have blamed the availability of federalmoney for driving up college costs.

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AARP's efforts at the state level to tighten regulations onthose relentless student loan servicers, by the way, havepreviously encountered roadblocks from industry groups; now, theTrump administration has entered the fray—on the side of theservicers.

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And with the Trump administration's rollback of protections forstudent loan borrowers, as well as killing rules on for-profitschools, it doesn't look as if congressional action will take placeany time soon.

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But politicians might want to remember one last thing that thereport points out: “far more than college students and20-somethings, older Americans really do show up and vote.”

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Marlene Satter

Marlene Y. Satter has worked in and written about the financial industry for decades.