by Marian Wang, ProPublica.
Parents are increasingly struggling to repay federal loans they’ve taken out to help cover their children’s college costs, according to newly released federal data.
The Parent Plus program allows parents to take out essentially uncapped amounts to cover college costs, regardless of the borrower’s income or ability to repay the loan. As the cost of college has risen, the program has become an increasingly critical workaround for families that max out on federal student loans and can’t pay the rest out of pocket.
Education Department officials have long said that they simply don’t have figures on how many of the loans were in default. But the agency has finally run some numbers. The data shows that default rates, while still modest, have nearly tripled over the last four years. About five percent of loans originated in fiscal year 2010 were in default three years later. The default rate at for-profit colleges is much higher, at 13 percent.
Overall, there is about $62 billion in outstanding debt from Parent Plus, according to the new data. The average Parent Plus loan borrower owes about $20,300. The Education Department compiled the numbers at the request of a government committee that is working on new rules for the program.
As ProPublica and the Chronicle of Higher Education have detailed, the availability of easy money can put individual families in a difficult place, leaving them to choose between taking on debt that they may struggle to repay and curtailing what they believe to be their child’s best shot at building a future. (See: How the Government Is Saddling Parents with College Loans They Can’t Afford.)
The program can be a losing proposition not only for overburdened parents, but also for taxpayers when the government isn’t able to recoup what it loaned.
Consider Lisa, a New Jersey mother living on Social Security disability payments who nevertheless qualified for tens of thousands dollars in Parent Plus loans. (Lisa asked that her last name not be used.) Due to an accident that left her with partial paralysis and chronic pain, Lisa had no expectation that she would ever work again. Lisa took the loans with mixed feelings, but no regrets, determined to help her daughter get the college education that she’d never had.
Documents reviewed by ProPublica show that Lisa is now roughly $45,000 in debt. That’s even with her daughter — currently a junior — having attended a community college for a year, giving her a year’s reprieve from taking on more parent loans. This fall, Lisa’s younger child will start college as well.
“There was a part of me that was definitely terrified, because it’s something that in my lifetime I couldn’t pay back. Let’s be realistic. With what I get, there was no way,” Lisa said, on signing for the loans. But she also felt relief: “Like, ‘Wow, they’re going to give me this money so I can do something for my child.’…You’re like a lottery winner.”