According to the Department of Education's most recent report, 13.7 percent of student-loan debtors in the most recent cohort of borrowers defaulted on their loans within three years of beginning the repayment period. That's not a good number, but DOE tells us that the student-loan default rate actually went down a bit from the previous year, when the three-year default rate was 14.7 percent.
The DOE's report on student-loan default rates is mildly intersting, but the Federal Reserve Bank of New York drilled down a little deeper into the data; and its findings are alarming. In a report issued last April, FRBNY concluded that about 17 percent of the nation's 39 million student-loan borrowers were in default in 2012. Interestingly, people in the 30 to 49 year-old age bracket had the highest delinquency rates--higher than either younger borrowers or older borrowers.
Moreover, as the Federal Reserve Bank pointed out, this percentage figure is based on a denominator that includes borrowers who are not in the repayment phase of their loans. Some are still in school, some have deferments, and some are participating in income-based repayment plans.
Among borrowers in the repayment phase (which constitute a smaller denominator), almost one third are in delinquency. This figure should alarm everyone in the higher education community.
Furthermore, the percentage of borrowers transitioning into delinquency on a quarterly basis is going up. The FRBNY report found that 6 percent of non-delinquent borrowers transitioned into delinquency in 2005. "By 2012, that rate had increased to 9 percent." Thus, there has been "an increasing trend of borrowers becoming newly delinquent over time"(Brown, et al., 2014, p. 12).
So what's the bottom line? In 2012, almost a third of student-loan borrowers who are in the repayment phase on their loans are delinquent on their monthly payments. And that doesn't include millions of people who have economic-hardship deferments that excuse them from making payments. And when we add in all those people in income-based repayment plans who are making monthly payments that are so low that their loan balances are not going down, we can see that the percentage of people who are not paying off their student loans is quite high.
In short , the evidence is all around us. The federal student loan program is in real trouble.
Meta Brown, Andrew Haughwout, Donghoon Lee, Joelle Scally, and Wilbert van der Klaauw. Measuring Student Debt and Its Performance. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, April 2014. Accessible at: http://www.newyorkfed.org/research/staff_reports/sr668.pdf