Showing posts with label student loan default rates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label student loan default rates. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Take this student loan and shove it: Will student debtors start making payments on their college loans when the government's payment holiday ends?

When we go on vacation, most of us sleep late, basking in the luxury of rising in the morning whenever we wish.

 Then our vacation ends, and we have to set our alarm clock again. And we find it damned difficult to pop out of bed at 6 AM to get to work on time.

 Something like that will happen when the U.S. Department of Education ends its pause on student loan payments. Student debtors enjoyed a grace period on their loan obligations during the COVID pandemic. They could skip their monthly student loan payments without penalty and spend that extra cash on other things—a new car, maybe.

 Millions of student borrowers benefited from this loan-payment holiday, but nobody knows how many will start making monthly payments again when the holiday comes to an end in February.

According to Politico, Education Department officials have instructed loan services to create a "safety net" for borrowers for the first three months after payment obligations begin:

 Borrowers who miss a payment during the initial 90-day period will not take a hit on their credit reports. Those borrowers will instead be automatically placed in a forbearance and be still considered current on their loans.

Student borrowers will appreciate the safety net, but will they start making their monthly loan payments again when the government's loan-payment pause finally ends?

Even before the pandemic, the default rate on student loans was considerably higher than the default rate on credit cards and car loans.

 And this pattern makes sense. Overburdened debtors who stop making car payments lose their cars. If they quit paying on their credit card balances, their cards get canceled.

 But if student-loan debtors stop making payments on their student loans, nothing happens--at least not immediately. 

 predict that student loan defaults will spike upward this spring. Millions of student-loan debtors got permission to stop making payments in the spring of 2020, and they will find it challenging to start writing those monthly payments again, even when they are legally obligated to do so. 

To paraphrase a great country singer, I think many college debtors will take their cue from Johnny Paycheck and tell the Department of Education to take their student loans and shove 'em.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Urban Institute: Thirty percent of student debtors are enrolled in Income-driven repayment plans

The federal student-loan program is in crisis, but it is hard to figure just how big the problem is.

The Department of Education annually reports the percentage of student borrowers who default three years after beginning repayment. That figure--about 10 percent in recent years--is concerning but not alarming.

Non-governmental studies (Pew Foundation and Brookings Institution) have found that the 5-year default rate for recent cohorts is double the 3-year rate: about 25 percent.  In other words, 1 out 4 student-loan debtors default on their loans within five years of beginning repayment.  Now that is alarming.

But the situation is a lot more dire than that.  A recent report from the Urban Institute (authored by Kristin Blagg, Laurie Goodman, and Kelia Washington) noted that 8 million student-loan debtors are in income-driven repayment plans (IDRs).  According to this report, that amounts to about 30 percent of all college borrowers.

That's really scary because almost no one among those IDR participants is paying down the principal on his or her debt.  Instead, just about all of these 8 million people are making very small monthly payments based on their income--not the amount that they borrowed.

It is always dicey to compare one student-loan analysis to another because we are always measuring apples and oranges. Some of the people counted as 5-year defaulters in one study may be the same people identified as IDR payers in another. (And the Brookings and Pew studies examined cohorts, not the entire student-debtor population.)

Nevertheless, it is clear that when the 5-year defaulters and the IDR participants are considered together, about half of all student-loan borrowers are not paying off their loans.  In my opinion, that's a meltdown.

You may love Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren or you may hate them, but both deserve credit for putting a serious proposal on the table to address the student-loan crisis.  Forgiving all student debt (Bernie's plan) or $50,000 of a borrower's debt (Elizabeth Warren's plan) are reasonable ideas.

One thing seems clear (at least to me): The student-loan program is out of control and it is kicking millions of people out of the middle class. The program hinders overburdened debtors from buying homes, having children, getting married, and saving for retirement.

And who benefits? Our corpulent, incompetently run colleges and universities whose leaders say the universities need more federal money.

Greedy colleges: "Feed me, Seymour!"

Friday, April 4, 2014

More Bad News About Student Loans: The Default Rate for Parent PLUS Loans Has Nearly Tripled Since 2006

Inside Higher Education reported today that the default rate for Parent PLUS loans has nearly tripled since 2006.  According to the Department of Education's most recent report, the three-year default rate on these loans is 5.1 percent.  In 2006, the PLUS loan default rate was only 1.8 percent.

The higher PLUS loan default rate doesn't sound too bad when compared to the overall student-loan three-year default rate--about 14 percent, according to DOE's report last October.  But let's look at the PLUS Loan default rate for parents of students attending for-profit colleges--13.3 percent! 

That's a scary number. And keep in mind that parents are not required to begin making loan payments until their children complete their studies.  If a student takes six years to graduate  (which is typical) or enrolls for graduate studies, the parent is not obligated to make loan payments until those studies are complete. Meanwhile, the interest is accruing on those loans--making them more difficult to repay.

Some institutional players--the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, in particular, are protesting recent efforts by DOE to tighten loan standards for PLUS loans. They say that making it more difficult for parents to borrow money for their children to attend college will disproportionately effect African American families and make it more difficult for African Americans to attend college.

But the HBCUs are primarily thinking about themselves, don't you think?  They don't want the feds to reduce the flow of federal student-aid dollars by making it harder for parents to take out PLUS loans.

A number of people commented on today's Inside Higher Education article, and it is clear to me that many of the commentators know a lot about the PLUS loan issue.  But as of this morning, not a single commentator pointed out that PLUS loans, like all federally-sponsored student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy unless the parents can show "undue hardship."

In other words, parents who borrow money under the PLUS program don't have reasonable access to the bankruptcy courts if they run into financial trouble caused by illness or the loss of a job. Thus, if their children get in over their heads by borrowing more money than they can pay back, both the student and the parents will be saddled with a debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy absent very unusual circumstances.

The higher education industry's discussions about the federal student loan crisis has an Alice in Wonderland quality about it.  The colleges and universities--whether public, private, for-profit or HBCUs--are primarily interested in keeping that federal student aid money flowing. They are like crack addicts--addicted to federal money just to keep their doors open.

We should be making every effort to keep college costs from continuing to rise. We should discourage parents from taking out personal loans to pay for their children's education. And--this is very important--we should amend the Bankruptcy Code to allow overburdened student loan debtors to discharge their debts in bankruptcy, whether they are students or the parents of students.


Michael Stratford, Education Department releases default rate data on controversial Parent PLUS loans. Inside Higher Education, April 3, 2014.  Available at:

Monday, November 4, 2013

President Obama Pushes Income-Based Repayment Plans for Student-Loan Debtors: Madness! Madness!

The U.S. Department of Education is sending e-mails to selected student-loan borrowers, urging them to consider signing up for income-based repayment plans (IBRs) to pay off their student loans. Currently, about 1.6 million student-loan borrowers participate in IBR plans, but DOE wants to sign up 3.6 million additional participants within the next six weeks.  If DOE is successful, more than 5 million people will soon be making student-loan payments based on a percentage of their income over a long period of time--20 to 25 years.

A lot of the major players in higher education like IBRs--"pay as you earn" plans as some people call them. In a co-authored essay in Chronicle of Higher Education, Sandy Baum of the College Board lauded the President's plan for notifying students about IBRs and said IBRs should be the "default option" for student-loan repayment. In other words, unless student borrowers affirmatively opt out, they would automatically be enrolled in a student-loan repayment plan that would stretch their payments out over 20 or 25 years.  Wow, what a super idea!

And how will income-based loan repayments be collected? The details aren't clear yet, but I imagine the feds will do what the Brookings Institution recommends.  Student-loan borrowers will have their loan payments deducted from their payroll checks. The IRS will become the national debt collector, and a student-loan borrower's monthly loan payments will go up or down based on the borrower's current income, like income-tax withholding payments. 

Thus, the day may be coming when former college students will see their monthly student-loan payment appear as just another deduction on their paychecks--like Social Security, mandatory retirement contributions, and federal and state taxes. And for most borrowers, those deductions will last about a quarter of a century.

President Obama probably thinks he is doing college-loan debtors a favor by encouraging them to sign up for long-term repayment plans. He reminds me of Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai. Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness) is so obsessed with building a bridge for the Japanese army that he loses sight of the fact that he is hurting his country's cause, not helping it.. Not until the end of the movie does the Colonel realize that he has betrayed his country and the soldiers he commands.  The last lines of the movie are: "Madness, Madness!"
Col. Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai
"Madness! Madness!"

Why are all the insiders lining up in favor of IBRs? Two reasons:

IBR plans will hide the student-loan default crisis. First and most importantly, IBRs are a cosmetic fix for the soaring student-loan default rate.  As I've explained before, the true student-loan default rate is probably twice as high as the anemic three-year default rate DOE reports every year. In the for-profit sector, the overall default rate is at least 40 percent.  Over the long run, such a default rate is economically and politically unsustainable.

For years now, the for-profits have hid their institutional default rates by encouraging their students to sign up for economic hardship deferments so they won't be counted as defaulters. Millions of people have these deferments, but this shell game can't last forever. Eventually, the government will have to admit that a lot of people on economic-hardship deferments (probably most of them) are really defaulters who will never pay back their loans.

Putting people in IBRs is unlikely to increase the number of people who pay off their loans, but it will obscure the true student-loan default rate for several years. How? If people are automatically enrolled in IBRs, their loan payments will be lowered perhaps as low as zero for people who are unemployed or are in low-paying jobs.  These people won't be paying off their loan balances because interest will continue to accrue.  But they won't be counted as defaulters.

IBRs will take the heat off colleges and universities to keep their costs down.  Second, IBRs benefit the colleges and universities. If students pay for their college experiences based on a percentage of their income instead of the amount they borrow, they will have little incentive to shop for a college based on price. And governmental agencies will have less incentive to try to keep college costs down. Colleges and universities can perpetuate the status quo indefinitely, raising their tuition rates every year without being pressured to keep their costs down.

The for-profits will be the big winners if IBR plans become the default option for student borrowers because their student-loan default rates will drop to zero in spite of the fact that too many students who attend for-profit colleges are paying exorbitant tuition and getting substandard educational experiences.

For most students and for American Society, IBRs will be a disaster. Income-based repayments may make sense for a small percentage of student-loan debtors, but if IBRs become the default option for college-student borrowers, the consequences will be disastrous.

First of all,  as I just said, IBRs reduce students' incentive to borrow as little money as possible to attend college. In fact, many students will conclude that it makes economic sense to borrow to the max. Thus, if IBRs become popular, the total amount of money students borrow every year to attend college will  continue going up--perhaps at a faster rate than in the past.

In addition, mass adoption of IBRs will hurt the American economy. If young people are locked into making student-loan payments for 20 or 25 years, their take-home pay will be smaller and they will have less money to purchase homes, have children, and save for retirement.

But this is the most chilling fact about IBRs: They have the potential for creating a large class of people who are in essence share croppers for the federal government They will be forced to contribute a percentage of their earnings to Uncle Sam for the majority of their working lives. No one can say with certainty what the psychological impact of this arrangement will be on American college graduates, but it could reduce their faith in the American dream and lead to mass cynicism about the American political process.

And IBRs will not increase the number of people who pay off their student loans. I predict that a majority of students who select IBR plans as their student-loan repayment option will be students who pay too much to attend for-profit colleges and don't make enough money after they complete their studies to pay back their loans.  A lot of these people will be unemployed or working in low-wage jobs that entitle them to pay nothing on their loans or to pay so little that their payments won't cover accruing interest.

These poor people will see their federal loan debt grow, not shrink, over the years, even if they make all their loan payments on time.  For example, the New York Times ran a story about a veterinarian who borrowed $300,000 to attend a for-profit veterinary school outside the United States. Even though this individual found a job as a veterinarian and is making regular student-loan payments under an IBR, her current job does not pay enough to enable her to make loan payments that are large enough to cover the accruing interest on her debt. A financial analyst estimated that when this veterinarian completes her 25 year repayment period, the amount of her debt will not have been paid off.  In fact, it will have doubled--from the $300,000 she originally borrowed to more than $600,000!

In short--and I say this emphatically--wholesale adoption of income-based repayment plans is madness and its long term effect will be drive millions of people out of the middle class and into a new class of Americans--sharecroppers for the federal government.


Sandy Baum & Michael McPherson. Obama's Aid Proposals Could Use a Reality Check. Chronicle of Higher Education, August 26, 2013. Accessible at:

David Segal. High debt and falling demand Traps New Vets. New York Times, February 23, 2013. Accessible at:

Michael Stratford. You've Got Mail. Inside Higher Education, November 4, 2013. Accessible at:

Friday, August 23, 2013

President Obama's Proposal to Lower College Costs--Is He Just Appointing a Committee on Snakes?

If you see a snake, just kill it-don't appoint a committee on snakes.

                                                                                                      Ross Perot

To his credit, President Obama recognizes that higher education in the United States is broken and needs fixing. The cost of higher education is increasing faster than the rate of inflation, graduation rates are low at many colleges, and the student-loan default rate is catastrophic. 
But what does President Obama plan to do about the problem?  He wants to create a rating system for colleges whereby comparable colleges are ranked based on tuition rates, graduation rates, graduates' earnings, and the percentage of low-income students who enroll.  Ultimately, the President wants to tie this rating system to federal student aid in some way--perhaps providing more aid to students who attend institutions with higher ratings.
As Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute described the plan, President Obama wants to impose "soft" price controls, creating a regulatory system that will encourage colleges to keep their prices down.
Well, pardon me for invoking  a quote from Ross Perot,  but isn't President Obama just appointing a snake committee instead of killing the snake?
"If you see a snake, just kill it."
Who really believes that President Obama's proposed rating system will help bring college costs down, reduce the amount of money people borrow to attend college, or lower the student-loan default rates?  All President Obama has done is to introduce a new topic to quarrel with Congress about. And no matter what rating system is devised, the colleges will figure ways to game the system--making themselves look better by manipulating the numbers.
No--rather than form a committee on snakes, let's kill the snake and treat the snake-bite victims.  These are things the Obama administration and Congress can do right now that will improve higher education and alleviate the suffering the present system has caused:
  • Report the true student-loan default rate.  The Department of Education's official default rate understates the number of people who are defaulting on their loans.  DOE needs to publish a more accurate figure on student-loan defaults.  At least then we would know the true size of the mess we are in.
  • Kick the for-profit colleges out of the federal student loan program. 
  • Amend the Bankruptcy Code to allow overburdened student-loan debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy under less onerous conditions.
  • Repeal the 2005 law that makes it almost impossible for people to discharge their private student loans in bankruptcy.
  • Stop garnishing defaulters' Social Security checks.
  • Reward community colleges that opt out of the federal student loan program by refusing to allow students to borrow money to enroll.
  • Encourage dual-credit programs whereby high school students obtain college credit for taking college-level courses while still in high school.
And I will go further and make a more radical proposal.  Why not kick all non-public institutions out of the federal student loan program?

Why should the federal government be subsidizing Harvard University, the University of Phoenix, or any other non-public college by loaning money to students who otherwise couldn't afford to attend those institutions? If a student cannot afford to go to a nonpublic college without taking out a student loan, that student should probably be going to a community college or public university.

What would happen if my proposals were adopted?

First of all, most of the for-profit colleges and trade schools would close if they were shut out of the federal student loan program because most of them receive the vast majority of all their revenues from federal student aid.  Personally, I am OK with that.  I think the United States can get along quite well without the University of Phoenix, Walden University, Kaplan University and all the other for-profit institutions.

Second, a lot of non-profit colleges would be forced to close if they were pushed out of the federal student loan program. I'm OK with that too.

A lot of non-profit colleges and universities are affiliated with religious denominations and they served a purpose when they were founded in the late 19th or early 20th century by providing low-cost college options for low-income students. But today most of these little denominational colleges charge $30,000 a year or more  in tuition and fees.  In my opinion, if St. Stigmata College in Jerkwater, Indiana can't survive without federal student loan money, then St. Stigmata needs to close.

Of course none of my proposals will ever be implemented.  Instead, total student loan indebtedness--now at $1.2 trillion--will continue growing. The number of student-loan defaulters will keep rising and the number of people whose lives were ruined by their student loans will keep going up.

And slowly---month by month and year by year--our economy will continue to falter because as a nation we can't figure out how to educate young people effectively and efficiently.


Tamar Lewin. Obama's Plan Aims to Lower Cost of College. New York Times, August 22, 2013, p. A2.

Neal McCluskey. Obama to Control the Price of Ivy? Cato Institute. Accessible at

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Student Loan Rates are Shockingly--Almost Fradulently--Inaccurate: Comments on Education Sector's Recent Report

Earlier this month, Education Sector, a nonprofit higher-education policy group, issued a report calling for better information on student loan default rates.  Written by Andrew Gillen, the report

points out that the U.S. Department of Education only measures default rates over the first three years of the loan-repayment period and does not break down data by various sub-populations.

DOE's three-year student-loan default rate masks an ugly reality--millions are in default

I have a couple of comments about the Education Sector report. First, it is very late in the day to call attention to the fact that DOE's reports on student-loan defaults are woefully inadequate.  I called attention to that problem more than 15 years ago in an edited book on student loans.  Nevertheless, I am glad Mr. Gillen highlighted this problem again.

Second, Mr. Gillen's report, although useful and professionally prepared, understates the deficiencies in DOE reports on student loan defaults. In my opinion, DOE's reports are so inadequate as to border on fraudulent misrepresentation.

As The Education Sector report explains:
[DOE] considers a loan to be in default if the borrower is more than 270 days behind on payments. The default rate is the percentage of a school's borrowers who enter repayment during a fiscal year and default within three years. . . Only subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans are included in the default rate calculation. The default rate calculation ignores Parent Plus, Grad Plus, and Perkins Loans.

So--first off, a borrower must be delinquent on a student loan for nine months to even be counted as a defaulter.  In reality, DOE is only measuring defaulters during the first two years and 3 months of the repayment period, not three years, since anyone who defaults within 270 days of the end of the measuring period is not counted as a defaulter. 

Second, and more importantly, DOE's default rate does not include people who received economic hardship deferments during the measurement period--people who are exempted from making their loan payments due to dire economic circumstances like unemployment. We know some for-profit institutions encourage their students to obtain economic hardship deferments as a way of keeping institutional default rates down. 

DOE does not report on how many people are receiving economic hardship deferments, how long those deferments typically last, or how many people who get a deferment ever begin making their loan payments. 

And that is no small matter. I have written about the Hedlund bankruptcy case, in which a man received a series of economic hardship deferments on his student loans over a period of many years and was never in default. About 20 years after taking out his loans, he filed for bankruptcy.  Although he had been excused from making payments by his economic hardship deferments, his loan size had nearly doubled due the fact that  interest had accrued over the years.

The Hedlund case  is an indication that there may be a lot of people who are on long-term economic hardship deferments who are not making loan payments and whose total indebtedness is growing.  Without knowing that number, we really can't say what the true student-loan default rate is.

DOE's anemic student-loan default rate also does not include people who are making monthly payments under income-based repayment plans. About 1.2 million people are making student-loan payments under IBR plans, and many are making payments that aren't large enough to pay down the balance of their debt.  In fact, some are seeing the amount of their debt grow because their payments don't cover accruing interest on their loans.

In my opinion, people who have economic hardship deferments that last more than three years and people in IBR plans whose loan payments are so small that their debt is actually growing are in default.  Not technically, of course--but the reality is that many of these people--probably most of them--will never pay back their student loans.

So what's the true student-loan default rate?  DOE says it is 13 percent over the first three years of the loan repayment period.  But measured over the life time of the loan repayment period, it is much higher.  It's probably at least 35 percent, maybe higher.

That Tired Old Metaphor: Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

I've used this tired old metaphor before, but forgive me for repeating it. Education policy makers are not dealing with the enormity of the student loan crisis; they are rearraning the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Not long ago, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded grants to 16 higher education policy groups, which were charged with making recommendations for improving the student-loan program.  Entitled Reimagining Aid Design and Deliver (RADD), the project elicited 16 reports and a wide variety of recommendations. I did not read all 16 reports word for word, but I did read the executive summaries. I don't think any of the 16 reports mentioned the fact that DOE's student-loan default rate masks the reality of how many former students have defaulted on their loans.

In my opinion, most of the higher education advocacy groups, think tanks and professional organizations--organizations like the American Council on Education, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities---are pretending that the status quo for the federal student loan program  is both acceptable and sustainable--we just need to tweak it a bit.

Friends, the status quo of the student loan program is not acceptable and it's not sustainable.  Student loan indebtedness totals $1 trillion; and it grows bigger every day. It's time to face the fact that this well-meaning program has ruined the lives of millions of college borrowers and that a big percentage of this trillion dollar debt is never going to be paid back.


Andrew Gillen. In Debt and In the Dark: It's Time for Better Information on Student Loan Defaults. Education Sector, July 2013. Accessible at:

Richard Fossey (1998).  The dizzying growth of the federal student loan program: When will vertigo set in?  In R. Fossey & M. Bateman (Eds.), Condemning students to debt: College loans and public policy.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Richard Fossey & Mark Bateman, M. (Eds.) (1998). Condemning students to debt: College loans and public policy.  New York: Teachers College Press. 

National Assocation of Student Financial Aid Administrators (2013). Policy Themes in RADD Reports: A Summary Matrix. Accessible at:


Friday, June 8, 2012

Thanks, NY Times, for Another Tepid Editorial About the Student Loan Crisis

In The Big Lebowski, Bunny Lebowski tells the Dude that her boyfriend is a nihilist. "He doesn't care about anything," she explains.

The Dude, Donny and Walter:
"That must be exhausting," the Dude replies sympathetically.

This scene reminds me of the New York Times editorial writers. Every day, they go to work and pen editorials opining on all the world's problems: global warming, the crisis in the Middle East, the European Debt crisis, obsesity--it must be exhausting!

Of course, not all of the Times' editorial advice is useful.  Earlier this week, a Times editorial, entitled "College's True Cost," commended the Obama administration's efforts to get colleges to communicate more clearly with students about the cost of attending college. As the Times reported approvingly, "[t]he Obama administration is developing a standardized form" that all colleges can use to report on how much a year of college costs and estimating the monthly payments students will owe when paying off their student loans.

"Unfortunately," the Times concluded, "colleges are unlikely to embrace this forthright approach unless the federal government makes it mandatory." Right. More government regulations will solve all our problems.

Obviously, givng students more information about their student-loan obligations is a good thing. But giving students clearer information about their student-loan debt burden is not going to solve the student-loan crisis any more than telling people how many calories are in a Big Mac will solve the nation's obesity crisis. People are still going to buy those Big Macs and students are still going to take out college loans because most of them can't afford to attend college without borrowing a lot of money.

Solving the student-loan debt crisis is going to take more than the creation of a standardized form for colleges to give students when they dole out student-loan money. As I've said before, these things must be done:
  • The Department of Education must stop hiding the true student-loan default rate and give the public more accurate reports on how many people have stopped paying on their student loans.
  • Insolvent student-loan debtors must be given reasonable access to the bankruptcy courts.
  • The Federal government must stop financing the for-profit schools and colleges, which have extraordinarily high student-loan default rates.
  • Colleges must operate more efficiently and rein in their costs.
Unless these things are done, other reform tactics are just a cosmetic approach to a very serious national problem.


Editorial (2012, June 7). College's true cost. New York Times, p. A24.