The U.S. Department of Education claims that the student loan default rate dropped one percentage to 13.7 percent based on a faulty “cohort” rate that measures the percentage of students who take out loans in one fiscal year, then defaulted over the next two fiscal years. In other words, the cohort rate used by ED is a very narrow snapshot that underreports the true student loan default rate.
As Jason Delisle and Clare McCann recently explained in Forbes expanding the default timeframe—say back to 2006 and 2007—actual default rates are more than double the reported three-year cohort rate: 26 percent for two-year community college students and 36 percent for two-year for-profit college students. Taking an even longer look spanning the past 20 years, student loan default rates are higher still, according to Delisle and McCann.
Across all higher education institutions—two- and four-year, public and private—as many as one in five undergraduates will default on their student loans.
Delisle and McCann also note that reliance on Income-Based Repayment and Pay As You Earn plans is increasing, but that doesn’t mean student debt load will be coming down any time soon:
[Repayment of loans based on income] now counts about 10 percent of borrowers actively repaying versus 5 percent a year ago. Whether that’s good or bad depends on where you sit. But note that the U.S. Department of Education estimates that of about a quarter of borrowers in the most generous of these plans will walk away from $41,000 in unpaid loans under a loan forgiveness benefit, based on initial balances of $39,500. That’s right, they’ll never even pay off the principal.
So yes, the 3-year cohort default rate ticked down slightly, but remember: The government still makes loans to undergraduate students expecting about one in five loans will eventually default; for those attending for-profit institutions, double that number. Of those who avoid default, a growing share are postponing repaying their loans, seeing their balances grow due to accruing interest and signing up to potentially have five figures of debt forgiven because they borrowed more than the government says their incomes can support.