Who Exactly Is the ‘Student’ in the Loan-Rate Debate?

Elahe Izadi

Robb Wilmot begins his day at 5 a.m., when he wraps up his college assignments before heading to a full day of work, followed by Boy Scout meetings, family dinners, and then more homework while his wife and four children sleep. He squeezes in class on the weekends or days off from work.

That’s been his routine for about six years, first as a 42-year-old undergraduate at the University of Maryland University College, and now as a graduate student. The days are long, but Wilmot says the credentials—and the example for his children—are worth it.

“There is a belief out there that a college degree is kind of the new high school diploma,” Wilmot said. “Then what’s a high school diploma? Really, you’re in bad shape if all you have is a high school diploma.”

While Wilmot doesn’t fit the traditional image of a college student—age 18 to 22, living on campus—he is closer to the norm than the exception. College affordability is often thought of as a young person’s issue, but the truth is that most young Americans aren’t in college full-time—and most college students aren’t all that young.

Among all college students, full- or part-time, 43 percent are 25 or older, according to 2010 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.


Moreover, only about 35 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds are full-time college students, according to 2011 census population estimates. (The figure rises to 42 percent when the age range narrows to 18-to-22-year-olds.)

And that image of the traditional college student? Fewer than 20 percent of undergraduates are 18-to-22-year-old full-time students living on campus, according to a 2010 paper by Woodrow Wilson Foundation President Arthur Levine.

The result is that, as Congress prepares to tackle student-loan interest rates, which doubled to 6.8 percent on new subsidized Stafford loans last week, the political dynamics may not be what they appear.

“At a political level, there’s kind of an assumption that all the young people are concerned about college affordability, whereas a large percentage of young people aren’t concerned about that at all,” said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University.

Indeed, Americans 30 and older hold the majority—$644 billion—of the roughly $1 trillion in student-loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

College affordability often gets pegged to younger students in part because they are disproportionately politically engaged. Only 36 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds without college experience voted in the 2008 election, compared with 62 percent of those with college experience, according to the center. Working-class young people are “not really part of the political situation,” Peter Levine said.

Still, lawmakers have been trying to appeal to young students and their families as they push proposals to reduce interest rates on student loans. Senate Republicans and Democrats left town for July Fourth recess without coming to an agreement to avert the automatic increase, which took effect July 1. Republicans want to tie the interest rates on Stafford loans to the 10-year Treasury note, with a percentage added on top. Democrats object to the proposal because it doesn’t cap rates on individual loans, and contributes to deficit reduction.

Subsidized Stafford loans account for about 26 percent of new student loans this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, while unsubsidized Stafford loans are projected to make up about 56 percent.

A group of Senate Democrats rolled out a pitch to freeze the 3.4 percent rate for a year, arguing that will offer the opportunity to tackle interest rates in the broader context of college affordability during debate over authorization of the Higher Education Act. “This isn’t some short-term vote,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said before the recess. “This is about what’s going to happen in this country if young people are continually burdened with debt.”

While studies show that education often leads to higher-paying jobs, older students sometimes have less time to pay off college debt and may also have additional concerns to balance, such as caring for aging parents and young children.

Wilmot, a training manager for Maryland courts, has all of the above. Now working toward a master’s in business administration, he stopped graduate-level coursework at one point to take care of his ailing parents. His mother has since died; his father is 82.

He also has children to consider. “My oldest child out of four is 11,” he said. “The idea to get these loans paid off before I start to pay for him to go to school is pretty daunting.”

Wilmot has a mix of subsidized, unsubsidized, PLUS, and private loans—about $125,000 in total.

“You have people, myself included, who go on faith, and go ahead and get into debt to do this, but it’s for the greater good, and you’ll sort it out in the end,” Wilmot said. “It’s a huge leap of faith.”