A Crisis in Student Loans? How Changes in the Characteristics of Borrowers and in the Institutions they Attended Contributed to Rising Loan Defaults
Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Lead Article 2015(2), 1-89, 2015
Coauthors: Adam Looney
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This paper examines the rise in student loan delinquency and default drawing on a unique set of administrative data on federal student borrowing, matched to earnings records from de-identified tax records. Most of the increase in default is associated with the rise in the number of borrowers at for-profit schools and, to a lesser extent, 2-year institutions and certain other non-selective institutions, whose students historically composed only a small share of borrowers. These non-traditional borrowers were drawn from lower income families, attended institutions with relatively weak educational outcomes, and experienced poor labor market outcomes after leaving school. In contrast, default rates among borrowers attending most 4-year public and non-profit private institutions and graduate borrowers—borrowers who represent the vast majority of the federal loan portfolio—have remained low, despite the severe recession and their relatively high loan balances. Their higher earnings, low rates of unemployment, and greater family resources appear to have enabled them to avoid adverse loan outcomes even during times of hardship. Decomposition analysis indicates that changes in characteristics of borrowers and the institutions they attended are associated with much of the doubling in default rates between 2000 and 2011. Changes in the type of schools attended, debt burdens, and labor market outcomes of non-traditional borrowers at for-profit and 2-year colleges explain the largest share.