How the Gov’t Is Saddling Parents with College Loans They Can’t Possibly Afford
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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.
Total Recipients of Plus Loans
The number of parents taking out Plus loans has nearly doubled since 2000.
Source: U.S. Department of Education
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.)