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The Looming Student Loan Crisis Is Worse Than We Thought

By: Judith Scott-Clayton

In this Brookings report, the author analyzes new data on student debt and repayment, released by the U.S. Department of Education in October 2017. Previously available data have been limited to borrowers only, follow students for a relatively short period (3–5 years) after entering repayment, and had only limited information on student characteristics and experiences. The new data allow for the most comprehensive assessment to date of student debt and default from the moment students first enter college, to when they are repaying loans up to 20 years later, for two cohorts of first-time entrants (in 1995–96 and 2003–04). This report provides a broader perspective on student debt and default that considers all college entrants rather than just borrowers, provides substantially longer follow-up, and enables a more detailed analysis of trends over time and heterogeneity across subgroups than previously possible.

  • Trends for the 1996 entry cohort show that cumulative default rates continue to rise between 12 and 20 years after initial entry. Applying these trends to the 2004 entry cohort suggests that nearly 40 percent may default on their student loans by 2023.
  • The new data show the importance of examining outcomes for all entrants, not just borrowers, since borrowing rates differ substantially across groups and over time. For example, for-profit borrowers default at twice the rate of public two-year borrowers (52 versus 26 percent after 12 years), but because for-profit students are more likely to borrow, the rate of default among all for-profit entrants is nearly four times that of public two-year entrants (47 percent versus 13 percent).
  • The new data underscore that default rates depend more on student and institutional factors than on average levels of debt. For example, only 4 percent of white graduates who never attended a for-profit defaulted within 12 years of entry, compared to 67 percent of black dropouts who ever attended a for-profit. And while average debt per student has risen over time, defaults are highest among those who borrow relatively small amounts.
  • Debt and default among black college students is at crisis levels, and even a bachelor’s degree is no guarantee of security: black bachelor's degree graduates default at five times the rate of white bachelor's degree graduates (21 versus 4 percent), and are more likely to default than white dropouts.
  • Trends over time are most alarming among for-profit colleges; out of 100 students who ever attended a for-profit, 23 defaulted within 12 years of starting college in the 1996 cohort compared to 43 in the 2004 cohort (compared to an increase from just 8 to 11 students among entrants who never attended a for-profit).

The results suggest that diffuse concern with rising levels of average debt is misplaced. Rather, the results provide support for robust efforts to regulate the for-profit sector, to improve degree attainment and promote income-contingent loan repayment options for all students, and to more fully address the particular challenges faced by college students of color.