Default Rates on Student Debt Increase with Lower Balances

Here’s a stunning graph from the New York Fed’s Liberty Street Blog:

What it shows is that default rates on student debt decrease with higher balances or, to put it the other way, the students with the highest default rates are the ones with the least debt.

I wouldn’t have predicted that but here are some possible explanations. First, dropouts have less debt and also less income. But while the debt rises proportionally with years of education the income rises in less than proportion. As I said in Launching, students who drop out after 2 years get less than half of the gains from completing a four-year degree (the sheepskin effect). Thus the 40% or so of students who dropout see their debt rise faster than their income so burdens are higher and default rates increases.

Although the debt to income ratio story is plausible it’s still surprising how many students default with low amounts of debt. Raymond, a commentator at the Liberty Street Blog, offers some additional hypotheses:

I work in financial aid at a large public community college. We pulled data on our defaulters and we found over 60% started with remedial coursework and borrowed their first and second terms. About 80% of the total data population suspended soon after the second term – thus the low amounts. Many were not students just out of high school, they were independent adults. Putting this altogether with the many years I’ve been in financial aid speaking with students I’ve come to a conclusion. 99% of the time when I have a student that has been suspended asking for loans and I mention private or alternative loans they immediately say they don’t have good credit. Bad credit seems to correlate with bad academics. Many seem concerned more with paying bills than paying education. Sometimes they are just out of jail and no one will hire them. Their probation requires they work or get a job which the later is nearly impossible. Other times we have people so deep in the hole in debt already that the student loans was a way to buy more time. The word is out if you have bad credit and are desperate for funds just go to a community college where tuition is low and borrow the maximum. We noticed in our data pull many students graduated from high school or received their GED up to 10 years ago or more! Want the defaults to go down – stop lending to students that have a significant number of remedial courses their 1st and 2nd terms at a college where tuition is already low.


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