Building a Better Student Loan Default Measure

Student loan default rates have been a hot political topic as of late given increased accountability pressures at the federal level. Currently, colleges can lose access to all federal financial aid (grants as well as loans) if more than 25% of students defaulted on their loans within two years of leaving college for three consecutive cohorts. Starting later this year, the measure used will be the default rate within three years of leaving college, and the cutoff for federal eligibility will rise to 30%. (Colleges can appeal this result if there are relatively few borrowers.)

But few students should ever have to default on their loans given the availability of various income-based repayment (IBR) plans. (PLUS loans typically aren’t eligible for income-based repayment, but their default rates oddly aren’t tracked and aren’t used for accountability purposes.) If a former student enrolled in IBR falls on tough times, his or her monthly payment will go down—potentially to zero if income is less than 150% of the federal poverty line. As a result, savvy colleges should be encouraging their students to enroll in IBR in order to reduce default rates.

And more students are enrolling in IBR. Jason Delisle at the New America Foundation analyzed new Federal Student Aid data out this week that showed that the number of students in IBR doubled from 950,000 to 1.9 million in the last year while outstanding loan balances went from $52.2 billion to $101.0 billion. The federal government’s total Direct Loan portfolio increased from $361.3 billion to $464.3 billion in the last year, meaning that IBR was responsible for nearly half of the increase in loan dollars.

This shift to IBR means that the federal government needs to consider new options for holding colleges accountable for their outcomes. Some options include:

(1) Using a longer default window. The “standard” loan repayment plan is ten years, but defaults are only tracked for three years. A longer window wouldn’t give an accurate picture of outcomes if more students enroll in IBR, but it would provide useful information on students who expect to do well enough after college that standard payments will be a better deal than IBR. This probably requires replacement of the creaky National Student Loan Data System, which may not be able to handle that many more data requests.

(2) Look at the percentage of students who don’t pay anything under IBR. This would measure the percentage of students making more than 150% of the poverty line, or about $23,000 per year for a former borrower with one other family member. Even with the woeful salaries in many public service jobs (such as teaching), they’ll likely have to pay something here.

(3) Look at the total amount repaid compared to the amount borrowed. If the goal is to make sure the federal government gets its money back, a measure of the percentage of funds repaid might be useful. Colleges could even be held accountable for part of the unpaid amount if desired.

As the Department of Education continues to develop draft college ratings (to come out later this fall), they are hopefully having these types of conversations when considering outcome measures. I hope this piece sparks a conversation about potential loan default or repayment measures that can improve upon the currently inadequate measure, so please offer your suggestions as comments below.

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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