As Parents Struggle to Repay College Loans for Their Children, Taxpayers Also Stand to Lose

by Marian Wang April 4, 2014, 3:30 p.m. EDT New Department of Education data shows...

by Marian Wang April 4, 2014, 3:30 p.m. EDT

New Department of Education data shows rising default rates on federal loans to parents.

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.”

Her daughter worries about the loans, having planned on paying for them anyway because she knew Lisa couldn’t.

“Honestly my mom never should have been accepted for a Plus loan,” her daughter told ProPublica. (She also asked that her name not be used.) “It’s ridiculous that they gave thousands of dollars a year to somebody who will never work again.”

To collect on defaulted loans, the government can garnish wages and Social Security checks. But the government is unlikely to get much back from Lisa, who gets roughly $700 per month from Social Security. Lisa may even ultimately qualify to get the loans discharged by the federal government. (Cancellations of debt due to severe and permanent disabilities have not been easy to get in the past, though that process has improved somewhat since we first reported on it.)

While both families and the government can face downsides for the loans going bad, colleges and universities benefit either way.

In the fall of 2011, a slight tightening of credit checks for Parent Plus caused consternation at a handful of colleges that were particularly reliant on revenue through the parent loan program. Several historically black colleges saw drops in enrollment, causing staff furloughs at some schools. EDMC, a for-profit college chain, felt the change enough to have to note it in regulatory filings, alerting investors to possible impacts on earnings.

Facing pressure from schools, the Education Department backpedaled, working with schools to reverse denials on a case-by-case basis. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan personally apologized to HBCU leaders, in particular, for how the changes were handled.

At the moment, there’s no mechanism in place that even loosely ties the performance of parent-loans back to the colleges that benefitted from the borrowed dollars, the way there is for most federal loans to students.

To do that, the agency would first need to track default rates by individual colleges. A department spokeswoman said the agency doesn’t calculate those figures.