Is the Student-Loan Debt Crisis Worse than We Thought?

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Joe Schildhorn / BFA / Sipa

A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York delivers generally positive news about the economy with one glaring exception: student-loan debt. The amount of debt and delinquencies are climbing, and some experts say the official numbers don’t even capture how big the problem really is. 

In the third quarter, there were fewer foreclosures, increased credit-card and auto lending (indicators of rising consumer confidence), and an overall drop in our collective debt load, led by decreasing mortgage debt.

Student loans are another story. We added $23 billion in new debt, and the 90-day delinquency rate rose to 11%, at a time when most other types of delinquencies are going down.

“Increasing delinquency rates are a very troubling sign,” says Deanne Loonin, an attorney and director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center. “The problem is in part due to the poor economy, but on the federal loan side, also underutilization of flexible repayment options such as income-based repayment.”

(MORE: Is Forgiving Student-Loan Debt a Good Idea?)

Some struggling alumni don’t know about the programs, she says, while others get stuck in a web of red tape. (The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has borrower information and a repayment-assistance tool on its website where you can find out what kind of loan you have and what repayment options might be available.)

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of and, says the student-loan market has some quirks that could be contributing to the rising delinquency rate. “Lenders of credit-card debt, auto loans and mortgages have adopted tighter credit-underwriting criteria in the aftermath of the credit crisis. This has denied credit to financially distressed borrowers,” he says. Most federal student-loan programs, though, will accept borrowers regardless of their credit history.

The other big difference is that student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. In other lending markets, a drop in outstanding debt can reflect lenders writing off the debt rather than borrowers paying it down.

Since student loans aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy and are very hard to have waived on a hardship basis, borrowers can’t just walk away. Students who take out private student loans don’t even have the repayment options that federal loans offer.

This has a major impact on other parts of the economy. Kantrowitz says debt-laden grads, often barely able to cover their monthly student-loan payments, “tend to delay life-cycle events” such as buying a car or house, getting married and having kids. High unemployment also adds to the problem by keeping young workers on the sidelines even as their debts continue to accrue interest.

Earlier this year, advocacy group Young Invincibles published a report about how student-loan debt is holding back the housing recovery. “Cutting out a cohort of graduates who previously participated in this market will add another drag to an economy only just emerging from the Great Recession.”

“Excessive student debt can slow the recovery of the housing market,” CFPB student-loan ombudsman Rohit Chopra wrote in a blog post. “Student-loan borrowers are sending big payments every month to their loan servicers rather than becoming first-time homebuyers.”

In the post, Chopra labeled the student-loan market “too big to fail.” But imposing broader or better reforms is difficult because even the experts don’t have a good handle on how big the problem is in the first place.

Different agencies use different data sets, so while the Fed says the total amount of student-loan debt was $956 billion as of the end of September, the CFPB estimated back in March that the number had topped $1 trillion “several months ago.” The Pew Research Center estimates that nearly 1 in 5 households is paying off student-loan debt.

(MORE: Here We Go Again: Is College Worth It?)

The Fed’s own number crunchers say that 11% delinquency rate only reflects only about half of the delinquencies because it doesn’t look at loans under forbearance or grace periods. “This implies that among loans in the repayment cycle, delinquency rates are roughly twice as high,” the report says.

“The Fed report underscores the urgent need for better student-loan data,” says Pauline Abernathy, vice president at the Institute for College Access & Success. “It’s a problem when even the size of the student-loan market is unknown.”