Updated 10/24/2013 6 PM: This post was updated to include a better description of the Asset Backed Commercial Paper conduit program.
Hidden amidst the shutdown furor was the annual release by the U.S. Department of Education of new student loan default rates
. The data measure how many borrowers who entered repayment in a single year defaulted on their federal student loans within two or three years. This year, the data show that 10 percent of borrowers default within two years of entering repayment and 14.7 percent do so within three years. As has historically been true, for-profit and community colleges had the highest default rates, well above those at public or private non-profit 4-year schools.
The overall trend here is not pretty. This is the sixth consecutive year in which two-year default rates increased, and they are now at the highest they’ve been since 1995. But with the growth in borrowing, this means there are significantly more people entering repayment and defaulting. More than 1.1 million more borrowers entered repayment in fiscal year 2011 compared to two years prior, and 10 percent defaulted, as compared to 8.8 percent in fiscal year 2009—an increase of more than 230,000 defaulters. Over those two years, enrollment in postsecondary education also increased, by more than 590,000 students, while the number of borrowers who entered repayment skyrocketed by 1.8 million students. See the chart below for more specific default rate figures.
Source: U.S. Department of Education
But beyond the school-based cohort default rates, the Department of Education also released some other interesting default rates: those for guaranty agencies and lenders under the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program.
FFEL is the now-defunct program replaced by the Direct Loan Program. Vestiges of the program remain, however, in the form of more than $400 billion in outstanding loans issued before the change. Under FFEL, government-backed loans were issued through a set of lenders, and 35 private non-profit organizations called guaranty agencies performed various administrative tasks, including providing federal default insurance to the lenders.
Default rates for lenders don’t carry much weight – there are no sanctions associated with high default rates. Each lender has a calculated two-year and three-year default rate, both for loans they originated and for loans they currently hold. Current lender two-year default rates range from 0 percent for over 500 lenders, including many who don’t hold any loans anymore, to a shocking 89 percent for Citibank, which still holds about 2,000 loans. Among the largest FFEL loan-holders (the 28 companies that hold 10,000 or more loans), rates average about 7 percent. Sallie Mae, the largest FFEL lender, has a default rate of 4.1 percent on the nearly 27,000 loans totaling almost $20 million it still holds from this cohort.
And the Department holds one set of loans with a very high default rate. During the financial crisis, in order to help FFEL lenders continue to make new loans, the Department of Education set up a financing vehicle called the Asset Backed Commercial Paper conduit program. The Department purchased some of the participants' FFEL loans, including all loans that were more than 210 days delinquent, as required by the contract. Those loans, now held by the Department but purchased through the conduit, carry a two-year default rate of 51.7 percent and a three-year rate of 56.6 percent. The requirement that the Department purchase those delinquent loans explains the abnormally high default rate.
The guaranty agency default rates provide another way of judging the results in the FFEL program. When a FFEL borrower defaults, the lender can file a claim to a guaranty agency to recover most of the outstanding loan balance. Then the guaranty agency—a true middleman—uses federal money to reimburse the lender, and the Department of Education reimburses those costs (this is known as “reinsurance”). But guaranty agencies with high default rates can’t receive the full amount of reinsurance reimbursement. If guaranty agency rates are below 5 percent, they get a 95 percent reimbursement; for rates between 5 percent and 9 percent, 85 percent; and for default rates that are 9 percent or higher, 75 percent.
As it turns out, at least when it comes to two-year cohort default rates, five of the reported guaranty agency default rates exceeded 9 percent for the 2011 cohort – Student Loan Guarantee Foundation of Arkansas, Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation, Higher Education Assistance Authority (Alabama and Kentucky), Florida Department of Education, and Oklahoma College Access Program. Still, in every one of those states except Oklahoma, the statewide student two-year and three-year cohort default rates are even higher than the guaranty agency two-year default rate.
And although some guaranty agencies are private non-profit organizations, while others are state-based and may receive some state resources, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in their performances. The non-profits’ average default rate is 6.2 percent – effectively identical to the 6.3 percent default rate among state-based guaranty agencies.
Two-year cohort default rates don’t set a particularly high bar, as it stands, either for guaranty agencies and lenders or for students. Guaranty agencies are not held accountable for their borrowers’ defaults. Schools are – for rates at or above 25 percent three years in a row, or higher than 40 percent in one year, schools lose eligibility for Title IV federal financial aid – but not as much as they once were. The last time rates reached about 10 percent, in 1995, more than 200 schools were sanctioned by the Department of Education. Since then, the number of schools subject to sanctions has dropped precipitously – to just 8 colleges for the 2011 cohort. The 2010 cohort – the most recently available class of students – illustrates the limitations of the default rate. Consider that schools’ two-year default rates jumped from 9.1 percent to 14.7 percent when a third year was included in the window. And default rates in a cohort (unsurprisingly) continue to grow every year – even outside the 2-year or 3-year window.
Thanks to a change enacted in the 2008 Higher Education Act reauthorization, cohort default rates will get moderately stronger next year as the Department finally transitions to relying on three-year rates to determine whether a disconcertingly large share of a school’s students are unable to pay their loans. This year, over 130 schools would be in danger of facing sanctions if their default rates did not change in the third year of calculations (to date, only two official three-year default rates have been calculated). The hope is that a longer window would be harder for schools to game by utilizing temporary measures such as deferment or forbearance to avoid default up to the edge of the two-year window.
Default rates are by no means a perfect measure of a school’s value to students, but they are part of a scaffolding of restrictions on colleges – a sort of baseline quality metric to help students avoid low-value schools and to avert wasted taxpayer dollars. The numbers released by the Department offer valuable insights into students’ struggles.