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33,000 senior citizens had Social Security garnished last year to pay back student debt

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Student debt isn't just a problem for Millennials. It's increasingly common — though still very rare — among the elderly, who have $18.2 billion in student debt, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office:

chart on old people with debt

The total amount of student debt held by people over 65 is still very small compared to the $1 trillion in outstanding debt. But it's grown rapidly since 2005. And the report says that most of these elderly debtors borrowed for their own education, not their children's or grandchildren's.

Many of these borrowers are struggling to pay the loans back: more than half of loans held by people over 75 are in default, meaning they haven't made a payment in at least 270 days.

When a federal student loan is in default, the government can keep portions of Social Security checks to pay it back. In 2013, that happened to 4,900 people over 75 and 28,200 between 65 and 74.

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