Today marked the annual release of data on cohort default rates—representing the percentage of students at a given college who default on their federal student loans within three years. The newest data show that 11.5% of students who entered repayment in Fiscal Year 2014 defaulted during this period, which is up slightly from 11.3% for those who entered repayment in Fiscal Year 2013.
Cohort default rates (CDRs) have been used for decades as an accountability metric by the federal government, with colleges posting CDRs of over 40% in a given year losing access to federal student loans for a two-year period and colleges with CDRs above 30% in three consecutive years losing access to all federal financial aid for two years. This year, six colleges posted default rates high enough to lose all Title IV aid and four more had default rates high enough to lose loan access.
Yet CDRs suffer from two key concerns that make them almost toothless from an accountability perspective—and show the need for better accountability metrics. I discuss the two key points in brief below (and if you like this topic, you’ll love my book on higher education accountability that will come out in January!).
Point 1: Default rates are an almost meaningless indicator of student outcomes. The availability of income-driven repayment programs means that no student should ever default on their obligations (although these programs are still clunky and some students simply don’t ever want to repay their loans). But for students who are able and willing to jump through the hoops of income-driven programs and have very low incomes, they can be current on their loans while making zero payments. Many colleges also adopt default management programs that can encourage students to either enroll in income-driven plans or to defer their obligations beyond the three-year accountability window.
In a recent article (a summary is available here), Amy Li of the University of Northern Colorado and I explored the relationship between default and repayment rates (as defined as paying down at least $1 in principal over a given period of time). We showed that although reported default rates stayed low, the percentage of students failing to repay any principal—a key question for taxpayers—was far higher.
Point 2: Default rate sanctions affect almost no colleges. Ben Miller of the Center for American Progress summed up how few colleges faced the loss of federal aid:
The all-or-nothing nature of potential sanctions gives colleges a tremendous incentive to make sure they aren’t affected. In 2014, the Obama Department of Education agreed to a controversial last-minute change to CDRs that allowed some colleges to sneak just below the 30% threshold. In 2017, a provision appeared in the FY 2018 budget that would effectively void CDR sanctions for colleges in economically distressed areas:
It turns out that Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) inserted the provision, likely to help out Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College—one of the six institutions that is at risk of losing all federal financial aid due to high default rates. It pays to have friends in high places, I reckon.
So what can be done to improve federal accountability policies on student loans? I offer two simple ideas to start. First, move from default rates to repayment rates in order to get a better idea of students’ post-college circumstances. Second, move from an all-or-nothing sanction system to gradual sanctions. I go into both of these points in more depth in a paper I wrote in 2015 on the idea of “risk sharing” for student loans. It is essential to move away from CDRs as quickly as possible, even though some in higher education community may prefer the CDR system that affects relatively few colleges.