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The Boston Globe

Business

Parents, too, are hit hard by student debt

NEW YORK — When ­Michele Fitzgerald and her daughter, Jenni, go out for dinner, Jenni pays. When they get haircuts, Jenni pays. When they buy groceries, Jenni pays.

It has been six years since Fitzgerald — broke, unemployed, and in default on the $18,000 in loans she took out for Jenni’s college education — became a boomerang mom, moving into her daughter’s town house apartment in Hingham, Mass. Jenni pays the rent.

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For Jenni, 35, the student loans and the education they bought have worked out: She has a good job in public relations and is paying down the loans in her name. But for her mother, 60, the parental debt has been disastrous.

‘‘It’s not easy,’’ Fitzgerald said. ‘‘Jenni feels the guilt and I feel the burden.’’

There are record numbers of student borrowers in financial distress, according to federal data. But millions of parents who have taken out loans to pay for their children’s college education make up a less visible Generation Debt. For the most part, these parents did well enough through midlife to take on sizable loans, but some have since fallen on tough times.

And unlike the angry students who have recently taken to the streets to protest their indebtedness, most of these parents are too ashamed to draw attention to themselves.

“You don’t want your children, much less your neighbors and friends, knowing that even though you’re living in a nice house, and you’ve been able to hold onto your job, your retirement money’s gone, you can’t pay your debts,’’ said a woman in Connecticut who took out $57,000 in federal loans. Between tough times at work and a divorce, she is teetering on default.

In the first three months of this year, 2.2 million borrowers of student loans were older than 60, a figure that has tripled since 2005, making them the fastest-growing age group for college debt. All told, those borrowers owed $43 billion, up from $8 billion seven years ago, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Almost 10 percent of the borrowers older than 60 were at least 90 days delinquent on payments, compared with 6 percent in 2005. And more and more of those with unpaid federal student debt are losing part of their Social Security benefits to the government — nearly 119,000 through September, compared with 23,996 in 2001, the Treasury Department says. Many parents with good credit choose private student loans, while others co-sign their children’s loans.

After borrowing money for Jenni, Fitzgerald divorced and lost her corporate job. She worked part time and got food stamps and other assistance.

‘‘I don’t really feel guilt, but I do know that this is all because of a loan taken out on my behalf,’’ said Jenni, who spoke only if her last name was not disclosed. ‘‘I asked my mother to move in with me, because I couldn’t stand it that she was living in a place with no heat.”

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