This story was co-published with The Chronicle of Higher Education.
More than a decade after Aurora Almendral first set foot on her dream college campus, she and her mother still shoulder the cost of that choice.
Almendral had been accepted to New York University in 1998, but even after adding up scholarships, grants, and the max she could take out in federal student loans, the private university — among nation’s costliest — still seemed out of reach. One program filled the gap: Aurora’s mother, Gemma Nemenzo, was eligible for a different federal loan meant to help parents finance their children’s college costs. Despite her mother’s modest income at the time — about $25,000 a year as a freelance writer, she estimates — the government quickly approved her for the loan. There was a simple credit check, but no check of income or whether Nemenzo, a single mom, could afford to repay the loans.
Nemenzo took out $17,000 in federal parent loans for the first two years her daughter attended NYU. But the burden soon became too much. With financial strains mounting, Almendral — who had promised to repay the loans herself — withdrew after her sophomore year. She later finished her degree at the far less expensive Hunter College, part of the public City University of New York, and went on to earn a Fulbright scholarship.
Today, a dozen years on, Nemenzo’s debt not only remains, it’s also nearly doubled with fees and interest to $33,000. Though Almendral is paying on the loans herself, her mother continues to pay the price for loans she couldn’t afford: Falling into delinquency on the loans had damaged her credit, making her ineligible to borrow more when it came time for Aurora’s sister to go to college.
Nemenzo is not alone. As the cost of college has spiraled ever upward and median family income has fallen, the loan program, called Parent Plus, has become indispensable for increasing numbers of parents desperate to make their children’s college plans work. Last year the government disbursed $10.6 billion in Parent Plus loans to just under a million families. Even adjusted for inflation, that’s $6.3 billion more than it disbursed back in 2000, and to nearly twice as many borrowers.
A joint examination by ProPublica and The Chronicle of Higher Education has found that Plus loans can sometimes hurt the very families they are intended to help: The loans are both remarkably easy to get and nearly impossible to get out from under for families who’ve overreached. When a parent applies for a Plus loan, the government checks credit history, but it doesn’t assess whether the borrower has the ability to repay the loan. It doesn’t check income. It doesn’t check employment status. It doesn’t check how much other debt — like a mortgage, or other student-loan debt — the borrower is already on the hook for.
“Right now, the government runs the program by the seat of its pants,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of two authoritative financial-aid websites. “You do have some parents who are borrowing $100,000 or more for their children’s college education who are getting in completely over their heads. Those parents are going to default, and their lives are going to be ruined, because they were allowed to borrow far more than is rational.”
Much attention has been focused on students burdened with loans throughout their lives. The recent growth in the Plus program highlights another way the societal burden of paying for college has shifted to families. It means some parents are now saddled with children’s college debt even as they approach retirement.
Unlike other federal student loans, Plus loans don’t have a set cap on borrowing. Parents can take out as much as they need to cover the gap between other financial aid and the full cost of attendance. Colleges, eager to boost enrollment and help families find financing, often steer parents toward the loans, recommending that they take out thousands of dollars with no consideration to whether they can afford it.
When it comes to paying the money back, the government takes a hard line. Plus loans, like all student loans, are all but impossible to discharge in bankruptcy. If a borrower is in default, the government can seize tax refunds and garnish wages or Social Security. What is more, repayment options are actually more limited for Parent Plus borrowers compared with other federal loans. Struggling borrowers can put their loans in deferment or forbearance, but except under certain conditions Parent Plus loans aren’t eligible for either of the two main income-based repayment programs to help borrowers with federal loans get more affordable monthly payments.
The U.S. Department of Education doesn’t know how many parents have defaulted on the loans. It doesn’t analyze or publish default rates for the Plus program with the same detail that it does for other federal education loans. It doesn’t calculate, for instance, what percentage of borrowers defaulted in the first few years of their repayment period — a figure that the department analyzes for other federal student loans. (Schools with high default rates over time can be penalized and become ineligible for federal aid.) For parent loans, the department has projections only for budgetary — and not accountability — purposes: It estimates that of all Parent Plus loans originated in the 2011 fiscal year, about 9.4 percent will default over the next 20 years.
But according to an outside analysis of federal survey data, many low-income borrowers appear to be overburdening themselves.
The analysis, by financial-aid expert Kantrowitz, uses survey data from 2007-08, the latest year for which information is available. Among Parent Plus borrowers in the bottom 10th of income, monthly payments made up 38 percent of their monthly income, on average. (By way of contrast, a federal program aimed at helping struggling graduates keeps monthly payments much lower, to a small share of discretionary income.) The survey data does not reflect the full Plus loan debt for parents who borrowed through the program for more than one child, as many do.
The data also show that one in five Parent Plus borrowers took out a loan for a student who received a federal Pell Grant — need-based aid that typically corresponds to a household income of $50,000 or less.
When Victoria Stillman’s son got in to Berklee College of Music, she couldn’t believe how simple the loan process was. Within minutes of completing an application online, she was approved. “The fact that the Plus loan program is willing to provide me with $50,000 a year is nuts,” says Stillman, an accountant. “It was the least-involved loan paperwork I ever filled out and required no attachments or proof.”
She decided against taking the loan, partly because of the 7.9-percent interest rate. Although it was a fixed rate, she found it too high.
Of course, Parent Plus can be an important financial lifeline — especially for those who can’t qualify for loans in the private market. An iffy credit score, high debt-to-income ratio, or lack of a credit history won’t necessarily disqualify anyone for a Plus loan. Applicants are approved so long as they don’t have an “adverse credit history,” such as a recent foreclosure, defaulted loan, or bankruptcy discharge. (As of last fall, the government also began disqualifying prospective borrowers with unpaid debts that were sent to collection agencies or charged off in the last five years.)
The Education Department says its priority is making sure college choice isn’t just for the wealthy. Families have to make tough decisions about their own finances, says Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the department. We “want folks to have access to capital to allow them to make smart investments and improve their lives,” Hamilton says. In the years after the credit crisis, department officials point out, other means of financing college — such as home-equity loans and private student loans — have become harder for families to get.
The department says it’s trying to pressure colleges to contain costs, and working to inform students and families of their financing options. “Our focus is transparency,” says Hamilton. “We want to make sure we’re arming folks with all the information they need.”