Federal student loans are the only consumer debt segment with continuous cumulative growth since the Great Recession. As the costs of tuition and borrowing continue to rise, the result is a widening default crisis that even Fed Chairman Jerome Powell labeled as a cause for concern.
Student loans have seen almost 157 percent in cumulative growth over the last 11 years. By comparison, auto loan debt has grown 52 percent while mortgage and credit-card debt actually fell by about 1 percent, according to a Bloomberg Global Data analysis of federal and private loans. All told, there’s a whopping $1.5 trillion in student loans out there (through the second quarter of 2018), marking the second-largest consumer debt segment in the country after mortgages, according to the Federal Reserve. And the number keeps growing. Student Debt Just Keeps Growing
Student loans are being issued at unprecedented rates as more American students pursue higher education. But the cost of tuition at both private and public institutions is touching all-time highs, while interest rates on student loans are also rising. Students are spending more time working instead of studying. (Some 85 percent of current students now work paid jobs while enrolled.) Experts and analysts worry that the next generation of graduates could default on their loans at even higher rates than in the immediate wake of the financial crisis.
“Students aren’t only facing increasing costs of college tuition; they’re facing increasing costs of borrowing to afford that degree,” said John Hupalo, founder and chief executive officer of Invite Education, an education financial planner. “That double whammy doesn’t bode well for students paying off loans.”
Student loan debt currently has the highest 90+ day delinquency rate of all household debt. More than 1 in 10 borrowers is at least 90 days delinquent, while mortgages and auto loans have a 1.1 percent and 4 percent delinquency rate, respectively, according to Bloomberg Global Data. While mortgages and auto loans have experienced an overall decrease in delinquencies since 2010, student loan delinquency rates remain within a percentage point of their all-time high in 2012.
Students attending for-profit universities and community colleges represented almost half of all borrowers leaving school and beginning to repay loans in 2011. They also accounted for 70 percent of all defaults. As a result, delinquencies skyrocketed in the 2011-12 academic year, reaching 11.73 percent.
“Delinquency is at crisis levels for borrowers, particularly for borrowers of color, borrowers who have gone to a for-profit and borrowers who didn’t ultimately obtain a degree,” she said, highlighting that each cohort is more likely to miss repayments on their loans than other public and private college students.
Those most at risk of delinquency tend to be, counterintuitively, those who’ve incurred smaller amounts of debt, explained Kali McFadden, senior research analyst at LendingTree. Graduates who leave school with six-figure degrees that are valued in the marketplace—such as post-graduate law or medical degrees—usually see a good return on their investment.
The cost of borrowing has also risen over the last two years. Undergraduates saw interest on direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans jump to 5 percent this year—the highest rate since 2009—while students seeking graduate and professional degrees now face a 6.6 percent interest rate, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
TL;DR: Rising levels of tuition debt, rising interest rates on student loans, and those that go to for-profit colleges or fail to graduate are the most at risk for default.