The smallest borrowers are in the most trouble

The smallest borrowers are in the most trouble

But what happens to students who don’t make it to the finish line-the ones who take out loans but leave college before earning their degree? These students end up borrowing relatively small amounts but don’t get the same payoff as those who get their B.A. And it turns out that the payoff, not the size of the loan, is the critical factor to the outcome.

Some 35 percent of them owe less than $5,000. Federal Reserve Bank of New York data also show that people with more than $100,000 in student loan debt are about half as likely to default as those with less than $5,000 in student loans.

“While the exact reason these [small-balance] borrowers struggle is unknown,” Miller wrote, “a likely explanation is that they did not receive a sufficient earning boost to pay off their debt, meaning they have all of the expense and none of the reward of attending college.” It’s a problem that has been falling underneath the radar for a long time, says Judith Scott-Clayton, associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College of Columbia University. “So much coverage is given to students with over $100,000 in debt and the burden that puts on their ability to live and buy a house and raise kids and do all the things that constitute adulthood,” she says. “I don’t want to minimize the depths of their challenge, but when you look at the problem from 30,000 feet up, it’s the borrowers with the least debt who are suffering the most, who face the most severe consequences and long-term implications for their finances, and they are the ones who need help the most.”

That recognition has serious policy implications, says Scott-Clayton, who has testified before the Senate three times as an expert on financial aid research and policy. She notes, “Thinking that the urgent problem is the amount students have borrowed leads to a different set of responses than if we think the issue is more about how borrowers navigate repayment.”

Consider: About half of all people who default on their loans never earned a college degree, and nearly two-thirds of them owe less than $10,000, according to a recent analysis by Ben Miller, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress

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Students who attend for-profit colleges also default on their loans at a much higher-than-average rate: 30 percent of bachelor’s degree holders who started at a for-profit college defaulted on their loans within 12 years of starting school vs. 5 percent of B.A.s who began at private nonprofit or public schools, TICAS reports. Others groups that have a higher-than-average risk of default include students from low-income households, those who are the first in their family to go to college and black students.

Women carry a disproportionate share of the loan burden.

Women now earn more degrees than men at nearly every level of academia, but achievement has come at a high cost. Literally. Women also hold nearly two thirds of outstanding student loan debt in the U.S-a ratio out of whack with the 57 percent of B.A.s and 58 percent of graduate degrees they take home.

That’s the central finding of a recent study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which noted that student debt was especially problematic for black women, who on average owe $11,000 more than male graduates and $8,000 more than white womenbined with the fact that women typically earn less than men as soon as they enter the workforce, the heavier debt load can make it more difficult for female graduates of all stripes to save for emergencies, contribute to retirement accounts and provide for their families to the same extent as men do. Says AAUW CEO Kim Churches, “If we believe that higher education is the great equalizer, we’re sadly mistaken.”

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