Debt

The Needless Tragedy of Student Loan Defaults


The Needless Tragedy of Student Loan Defaults

Photograph by Finn O'Hara

For the first time on record, the delinquency rate on student loans has jumped above the rate for credit cards, car loans, or any other kind of consumer loan. The tragedy? Many of those loans will default, with stunningly harsh consequences, even though there are many good options for debt relief—deferment, forebearance, or reductions in monthly payments.

“There is actually no rational reason for a borrower to be delinquent or default on their loans,” says Mark Kantrowitz, president of MK Consulting in Cranberry Township, Pa., and operator of the FinAid.org website.

Borrowers who are unemployed, in the military, or back in school can ask for up to three years or full or partial deferment on repayment of a federal loan. For those who have a job but don’t earn enough to cover the monthly payment, there are six options: graduated repayment, extended repayment, income-based repayment, income-contingent repayment, income-sensitive repayment, and pay-as-you-earn repayment. In other words, the federal government will do just about anything to keep borrowers from giving up and walking away completely.

If that’s the carrot, here’s the stick: Defaulting is “like a trip through hell with no light at the end of tunnel,” says Kantrowitz. The federal government can garnish up to 15 percent of a borrower’s wages, Social Security disability, and Social Security retirement income without a court order. Unlike other debt, student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. Collection charges of up to 20 percent can be skimmed off the top of payments—enough to turn a 10-year loan into a 19-year loan. To say nothing of the lasting damage to a borrower’s credit score, which will make it hard or impossible to get a credit card, auto loan, or mortgage.

And, oh, by the way, if you win the lottery, the first winner from your windfall is the Education Department.

With that kind of downside, why do so many people default on their student loans? Some may not understand their options, or put off dealing with the problem. Also, research shows that many borrowers consider their student loans illegitimate and don’t feel they should have to pay them back. In fact, default rates are four times as high for dropouts, who presumably feel they didn’t get their money’s worth.

There’s a cyclical factor, too. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported on Nov. 27 that the percentage of student loan balances that were 90 or more days delinquent rose to 11 percent in the July-September quarter, higher than the delinquency rate on credit cards since the survey began in 2003. The spike comes at a time when youth unemployment remains historically high. Even for those with jobs, people are paying ever more money for educations that don’t equip them for jobs that pay them enough to cover their debts, as I wrote earlier this year in “Debt for Life.”

At the same time, delinquency rates on credit cards, auto loans, and mortgages have been falling because bad credit has been washed out of the system. There’s no such cleansing mechanism for student debt, which now totals $956 billion in outstanding loans, according to the New York Fed. The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, using different methodologies, says student loan debt passed the $1 trillion mark sometime last winter.

Then there’s the fact that some of these student borrowers were probably lousy bets for repayment in the first place. The federal government, which holds 85 percent of outstanding student debt, doesn’t make loans to students based on their ability to repay them. That may sound crazy, but it is designed to ensure that students of all backgrounds and income levels get a shot at a college degree.

That willful blindness also sets up the government for huge losses. The purpose of the draconian punishment for defaulters is to make up for the lack of sound underwriting on the original lending. Clearly, though, the threats aren’t working—and neither are the multiple repayment options the government offers.

Coy_190
Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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