According to newly released data, default rates on federal student loans continued to climb in 2008, reaching a nine-year high of 6.7 percent, most likely as a result of the recession. The annual cohort default rate, released by the Department of Education on Monday, covers federal student loans that went into repayment between October 2006 and September 2007 and had gone into default by September 2008.
The 2007 cohort default rate was 1.5 percentage points higher than the rate for the previous year, as significant increases took place across the board. Defaults were higher in the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program than in the Federal Direct Loans Program, which is typically the case, but the discrepancy between the two grew this year. A total of 7.2 percent of loans in the bank-based system were in default, compared to 4.8 percent of the loans in the Direct Loans program. he numbers for 2006 were 5.3 and 4.7 percent, respectively.
Much of this discrepancy can be attributed to a higher percentage of students at proprietary schools participating in the FFEL Program, as these schools carried a default rate of 11.1 percent, compared to rates of 6.0 percent and 3.8 percent at public and private colleges. Still, the lower default rate in the direct lending program is likely to be brought up as Congress debates moving all lending from FFEL into Direct Loans.
Default is defined as failure to make payments on a student loan according to the terms of the master promissory note the borrower signed, and federal student loans are considered in default only after several months of missed payments. This means that 6.7 percent of students in this cohort had stopped making payments for 270 days or more within 1-2 years of their first loan payment coming due. It's likely that the cohort default rate numbers released paint an optimistic picture of the number of borrowers currently having trouble making payments on student loans.
New repayment options may help troubled borrowers, though, and several have been introduced in recent months. One is the federal Income-Based Repayment Plan, which allows students to make payments they can afford and forgives all remaining debt after 25 years. Borrowers worried about repayment can also look into loan forgiveness programs offered in exchange for public service, which have been expanded under the Higher Education Act and national service legislation.
The best way for students to avoid the prospect of defaulting on loans is to limit borrowing as much as possible. Put some serious effort into a scholarship search, and consider affordability when doing your college search, as well. Practices such as keeping your options open and landing a scholarship can go a long way towards reducing your loan debt and your risk of being unable to pay once you graduate.