As many as 40 million Americans are facing years of pay-off on their student loan debts.

That’s one in five adult U.S. residents who owe a total of $1.47 trillion. That’s more than their credit cards or auto loans.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that as of the end of 2018 44.7 million Americans have student loan debt.

The issue returned to the headlines this past week because Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts proposed canceling much of this debt.

More than three out of four borrowers owe less than $50,000. The Warren proposal would wipe out the first $50,000 of debt of anyone with a household income below $100,000 a year.

Most Americans with student debt are young. But adults 60 and older — who either struggled to pay off their own loans or took on debt for their children or grandchildren — are the fastest-growing age cohort among student loan borrowers.

The number of Americans over the age of 60 with student loan debt has more than doubled in the last decade.

The average monthly student loan payment ranges from $200 to $300, according to a report from the Federal Reserve.

Many borrowers struggle to repay their loans. The national default rate, a U.S. Department of Education measurement of the number of borrowers who start repayment, then default in the next two or three years, was 10.8% among those who started repayment in 2015, the most recent data available.

Experts say that borrowers with low balances are the most likely to default.

Peris Yu, an attorney at the nonprofit Consumer Law Center, said seniors are a sizable portion of the clients she sees.

“The number of seniors with student loan debt has exploded,” Yu said. “We’re not just talking about kids and millennials. It impacts a large swath of our population.”

Enrollments in income-based student loan repayment plans have more than tripled from 2014 to 2019.

Yu, whose clients usually come to her after defaulting on loans, says income-based repayment plans help reduce defaults. But the process of enrolling is difficult, with paperwork that can get lost, renewal notices that aren’t clear and requirements that vary from lender to lender.

“For a family on SNAP benefits, the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to get into an income-based repayment plan is not something they need,” Yu said, referring to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for low-income individuals and families.

Of the more than 1.3 million who applied to an income-based repayment plan during the Department of Education’s 2018 fiscal year, almost three-quarters earned less than $100,000, making them eligible for the full amount of loan cancellation under the proposed Warren plan.

Low-income Americans were the majority of sign-ups for income-based repayment plans in fiscal year 2018.

This situation needs to be assessed on a nationwide basis. But the Warren plan can be expected to be vigorously debated over the next year and a half, and voters will need much more information — particularly as related to taxpayers — prior to the 2020 presidential election.

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