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A Blog from New America's Higher Education Initiative

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The Scariest Student Loan Figure is $14,500

Published:  August 6, 2013

This post also appeared on our sister blog, Ed Money Watch.

Yesterday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a new set of data that give the best look to date at the repayment plans of borrowers and the status of their loans. Depending on how much you like to assert gloom and doom in the loan portfolio, the headline-grabbing figure is likely to be either: $3 out of every $10 loan dollars are in deferment, forbearance, or default or only about 20 percent of loan dollars in repayment are in income-based plans. But the figures also show how focusing on absolute debt balances to highlight struggles can be misleading and context matters when it comes to loan performance.

A general assumption in much student debt coverage is that someone with high balances is likely to struggle and default. But this chart from the CFPB suggests that narrative isn't quite so straightforward:

Average Balance By Repayment Status (in thousands of dollars)

What this shows is that borrowers in default had by far the lowest debt balances of anyone who had actually entered repayment. (The in-school figure is only a bit higher, but that's also capturing everyone from the fifth-year senior with loan debt from each year and someone just starting out with a small Stafford loan.) That may seem counterintuitive, but it should not be surprising. Research shows that program completion is a major factor in whether or not a student defaults on his or her loans. And since students have annual loan limits, someone who drops out early in their college career can only accumulate so much debt. This means high-debt borrowers are more likely to have finished their programs and are thus at less risk of default. 

The low debt levels of defaulters should make us rethink the way we portray student debt in two ways. First, some people may actually be served by borrowing more, not less.* Think about a dropout who already has student loan debt. They may get a little bit of an earnings return for having completed some college, but not as much as if they'd finished. For that individual, they might actually be better served with more debt if that would help them complete.

*I'm assuming no changes to the financial aid system. In general, more grant aid that's invested more intelligently would better.

Second, flashy debt balances make for good press but not necessarily good policy. I'm just as compelled and saddened by the latest story on the New York University graduate student with $100,000 in debt as the next guy, but I'm a lot more worried about the person earning minimum wage with $5,000 in debt.  The most an undergraduate student of any type can borrow through the federal programs is $57,500, and that's as an independent; dependent students are capped at $31,000. Sure those balances can get bigger with interest, but it's unlikely to hit that magic six figures before ending up in a worse circumstance like default. But even those undergraduates with high debt balances are likely to be in four-year bachelor's degree programs where their expected returns are much higher.

Instead, we should be worrying about these low balance dropouts, such as someone who attended a certificate program for a year and did not finish. For these borrowers, even a few thousand dollars could be an economic shock they cannot recover from. 

Income-Based Repayment May Not Be Helping

Instead of defaulting, the low-debt defaulters should be taking advantage of income-based repayment. But, the debt numbers released on IBR demonstrate that the intended beneficiaries are falling through the cracks while graduate students with high debt balances are taking advantage of the program. 

Repayment Plans of Direct Loan Borrowers

Income-based repayment is portrayed as a safety net to help low-income students manage their loan payments. Though not explicitly stated, the assumption is that these individuals are likely to be undergraduates just getting started on their careers. But the chart above suggests that the average IBR participant is likely to have graduate school debt. The roughly 900,000 borrowers with Direct Loans enrolled in IBR have an average loan balance of $55,900--a figure that's essentially impossible for undergraduate borrowers to hit. An dependent undergraduate can only borrow up to $31,000, which means someone borrowing the maximum would have to make no payments for seven years and avoid losing IBR eligibility by defaulting in order to hit that level. While an independent undergraduate student could borrow that much, in practice they tend to take out less debt than a dependent student. That leaves graduate students, who can borrow up to $138,500 in Stafford loans, plus an essentially uncapped amount in PLUS loan debt.

We can't know from these numbers, alone, exactly who these borrowers are, but here are some educated guesses as to why graduate students might be more likely to use IBR. Students selecting IBR have to navigate a multitude of repayment options and then complete paperwork that is notoriously complicated and difficult to use. This creates an immediate disposition toward not making choices and just using the standard 10-year repayment plan, which the table above shows is the  most popular option. While struggling dropouts would likely benefit from IBR, they’ve probably lost touch with their school and probably aren’t getting much support in choosing the right repayment plan. Borrowers with advanced degrees and proactive financial aid offices, on the other hand, have a significant incentive to make sure higher debt balances don’t become unmanageable. (There is evidence that graduate schools exert a significant amount of effort helping students enroll in IBR.)

Based upon Safety Net or Windfallan analysis of IBR and other repayment plans conducted by Jason Delisle and Alex Holt last year, it's likely that these high-debt borrowers in IBR are either pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) or in low-paying jobs. That's because the analysis showed that someone with high debt and moderate to high income would be better served in the extended graduated repayment plan than using IBR. (This is no longer true with the new Pay As You Earn option, which is the best deal for high debt, high income borrowers.) So someone making the best repayment plan choice here would either be trying to get the 10-year PSLF or be unable to find a high-paying job. And we know there are plenty of bad graduate schools out there with abysmal employment numbers or unemployed law students. 

The mismatch between those going into default and those in IBR suggests that the program needs to be drastically simplified, and perhaps become the default option instead of the 10-year payment plan. Alternatively, payments could be done through employer withholding, as suggested by the Petri-Polis ExCEL Act. Regardless of the exact solution, in a world where those going into default have loan balances one-quarter the size of those using income-based plans, we need to do a better job making sure the policy solution is actually helping those who need it most. 

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