In its most recent quarterly household debt report, the Fed pegged total outstanding debt at $1.46 trillion as of the end of December. According to the Fed, about 11 percent of that debt ($166 billion) is delinquent or in default. That's a startling number. But the picture is far bleaker than that.
Just two months ago, Secretary of Education Betsy Devos stated publicly that only one out of four student borrowers (24 percent) are paying down the principal and interest on their loans. "As for FSA's portfolio today," DeVos said, "too many loans are either delinquent, in default, or are [in] plans on which students are paying so little, their loan balance continues to grow." In total, DeVos admitted, "43 percent of all loans are currently considered 'in distress,'" and 20 percent of all federal student loans are delinquent or in default.
DeVos also implicitly acknowledged that the federal government is cooking the books by classifying a lot of student debt as performing loans even though millions of people are not paying them back. "Only through government accounting is this student loan portfolio counted as anything but an asset embedded with significant risk," DeVos observed. "In the commercial world, no bank regulator would allow this portfolio to be valued at full, face value."
In addition to the millions of people who have defaulted on their loans, millions more are in various plans that allow borrowers to skip their loan payments without being counted as defaulters. As of last summer, 7.4 million people were enrolled in long-term income-based repayment plans who are making payments so low that interest continues to accrue on their loans.
Think about that: 7.4 million people whose loans are labeled as performing even though their loan balances get larger with each passing month. You can label that scenario any way you like, but we're talking about 7.4 million additional defaulters.
The Department of Education has been scamming the public for a quarter of a century regarding student-loan defaults. For years, it only reported the percentage of loans that defaulted within two years of entering repayment. To keep their default rates down, colleges encouraged their former students to enter into economic-hardship deferments, which excused them from making payments without officially putting them in default.
Then DOE began reporting three-year default rates, which showed defaults ticking up slightly to the neighborhood of 11 percent. But the Brookings Institute (in a paper written by Looney and Yannelis) reported in 2015 that the 5-year default rate for a recent cohort was 28 percent--more than double the three-year rate.
In other words, for a cohort of borrowers that the Brookings researchers analyzed, more than one out of four student borrowers was officially in default after five years. According to the same Brookings report, the five-year default rate for students who attended for-profit colleges was 47 percent--nearly half!
Of course, loan default rates vary some from cohort to cohort, but there is no sign that the percentage of student borrowers paying off their loans is going up. In fact, the data show the opposite.
In short, the Fed's recent report may be technically accurate but it understates the magnitude of the student-loan crisis. When the Department of Education finally comes clean and gives us some accurate figures, I think we will find that half of all outstanding student loans are not performing--about 20 million borrowers with collective debt totally three quarters of a trillion dollars.