Loan delinquency a common event

Four of 10 borrowers faced the negative risks of delinquency or default on federal loans.

Graison Hensley Chapman

As they conclude final exams and begin their job searches, graduating students with federal-loan debt face long odds against repaying them without incident, with one in four at risk of falling behind on payments, according to a recent study by a higher education think tank.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy study, which drew from five large student loan guarantors, said of the nearly 9 million students it surveyed from 2004 to 2009, âÄú41 percent of the borrowers faced the negative consequences of delinquency or default.âÄù

Study co-author Alisa Cunningham hopes the studyâÄôs focus on delinquency âÄî the late repayment of debt âÄî will increase awareness of the problem, which is often crowded out by the less frequent problem of default, or failure to repay a loan altogether.

 âÄúNobody really knows about this group,âÄù she said of delinquent borrowers.

Cunningham also said she hopes the study will be followed up by other studies examining private loans, forbearance and similar issues.

University students donâÄôt have to wait to graduate or leave school to be impacted by loan debt.

 âÄúIâÄôve taken out loans every year since IâÄôve been here,âÄù said Adam Miller, a music education junior.

Miller, who is paying his own way through school, has taken out both unsubsidized and subsidized Federal Direct loans each year of his education, supplementing it with a state-administered SELF loan that he makes interest payments on several times per year.

âÄúThereâÄôs no way that a student can pay their way through college without assistance,âÄù he said. âÄúI donâÄôt know anyone that doesnâÄôt have some kind of loan right now.âÄù

Of students who entered repayment in 2005, the March IHEP report stated, only 37 percent have paid without delay while a quarter went delinquent on payments, representing $8.5 billion in loans. A further 15 percent defaulted.

Apart from paying the cost of collection and court fees if a loan goes sufficiently delinquent, borrowersâÄô credit score suffers, and with it their ability to get future loans. The federal government can garnish wages, withhold tax refunds and public services like Social Security if a borrower defaults.

As the demand for college has grown, so has the rate of students taking on debt. According to the study, from 2007 to 2008 nearly four of 10 undergraduates took out loans to pay for school, a 5 percent increase from four years earlier.

And while policy conversations on student loans have focused on those who default, the report found that far more students fall behind payment.

âÄúMany more borrowers are having difficulty repaying their loans,âÄù it continued, âÄúthan is generally recognized when the focus is on default rates alone.âÄù

Borrowing students are more likely to face delinquency or default if they do not graduate, if they attend a two-year or for-profit institution or if they borrow earlier in their education. Students with greater financial need are at similar risk.

While CunninghamâÄôs paper doesnâÄôt advocate for one solution over another, she cited a financial information gap as a chief problem for students both in and out ofschool.

âÄúThere are a number of borrowers who just donâÄôt understand repayment schedules,âÄù she said.

By dropping out of school, Cunningham said, many forgo mechanisms, like loan counseling, offered in school.

âÄúIf we can get to them early enough,âÄù she said. âÄúWe can help them avoid becoming delinquent in the first place.âÄù