Student Loans are Just that . . . Loans. Defaulting is a Risky Proposition – Part I

Millions of Americans are up to their wallets in debt for money they borrowed way back when and thought they’d get around to paying off . . . well . . . eventually. Good luck with that.

Almost 6 million people are at least a year behind in paying off their student loans for post-secondary education. And with new-graduate unemployment as high as it is, the prospects are getting worse. A September 9, 2012 article in the New York Times paints a pretty bleak picture. Sixteen percent of all those with outstanding balances—representing a whopping $76 billion—are in default. So what’s the upshot?

Many of the defaulters are being hunted down, not by the FBI or the local sheriff, but by collection agencies. This is ironic because in my last blog post I discussed the need to regulate collection agencies. Who should regulate them? The federal government (as well as the states). Who is hiring them? The federal government. So while the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) is taking steps to protect debtors from unsavory collection practices, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) is hiring some of those same agencies the CFPB is trying to get in line. In the last fiscal year, the DOE paid $1.4 billion to collection agencies and other “bounty hunters” in order to recoup its losses.

Many years ago, there was a TV commercial for Chiffon margarine that ended with the catch phrase, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” Learning she had been fooled into thinking Chiffon was butter, Mom would summon up a thunderbolt. Substitute the U.S. government for Mother Nature and collection agencies for the thunderbolt, and you get a picture of what defaulters are up against. Unlike pitiful little banks and lame mortgage lenders, the fed can muster up some pretty loud thunderbolts of its own. The Times article tells the story of 29-year-old single mother Amanda Cordeiro of Florida, who is in the red on a student loan to the tune of 55 grand. She has had two tax refunds seized (private companies can’t do that) and has changed her phone number several times in the last year to avoid the harassing phone calls the CFPB is trying to put a stop to.

Other defaulters have had Social Security payments garnisheed. This makes life miserable for a lot of former students, especially those who have taken pricey courses at private for-profit schools, like University of Phoenix, ITT Technical Institute, Kaplan University and DeVry University. Many of these schools specialize in Internet coursework with disappointing completion rates for students and less-than-stellar job placement records. The educational institutes frequently coach students into taking out the loans, which are paid directly to the schools. Often, those who fail to find well-paying employment take it on the lam because they have no way to pay back the loans. Students who attended profit-making schools –about 11 percent of all students – account for nearly half of all defaults. Dropouts were nearly four times as likely to default as those who graduate.

While there are programs available to help desperate students pay off their loans over an extended period, with outstanding balance forgiveness at the end of that term, the companies that administer the loans for the government frequently fail to inform the borrowers of those programs. Mounting penalties and accumulating interest rates can lead to huge debt and ruined credit ratings, making life even more difficult when defaulters tries to take out a loan on a car or home, or when they apply for credit cards.

It is very difficult to wipe out government loans through bankruptcy, and they have no statute of limitations. The government has been able to recoup a whopping 80 percent of defaulted debt, about four times the rate of nongovernment lenders.

You may know the acronym ARM as standing for “adjustable rate mortgage.” ARM can also mean “accounts receivable management,” as debt collectors call themselves. The ARM industry is booming thanks to defaulted student loans. ARM companies seek government contracts because of their high rate of return.

When borrowers are delinquent paying for a year, the lender (Uncle Sam) declares them in default. If it cannot find the debtors, the government sics collection agencies on them.

 I leave you and those you care about with a checklist:

  •   Be very, very careful about taking courses from Internet post-secondary schools (see my column of July 17, 2012);
  •  Don’t take out a student loan unless you are damned sure you are going to finish your course of study;
  •  If you do apply for a student loan, get all the information up front about programs to help students who are having trouble paying off their loans;
  •  If you are already delinquent, go to the agency through whom you acquired the loan and ask for the information on extended payback programs;
  • And finally, if you are in debt up to your neck, don’t go making babies, or you’ll be asking for a heap of grief.

To be continued. “See” you in part 2.

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