PolitiFact: Student loan default rate is not 50 percent


The default rate for college students has grown from 40 percent 10 years ago to about 50 percent today.”

— Dennis Kucinich on Monday, January 29th, 2018 in on a campaign website

Former Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich says young people look with trepidation toward the future because they can’t afford college.

We fact-checked his statistics and found he has a point that student debt is a big problem, but he flubbed some of the numbers about the default rate.

Kucinich’s claim that “the default rate for students 10 years ago was about 40 percent” is based on a credible report, but he presented the number as a default rate in the past. The report actually cites that figure as a prediction for the future.

A January report by Columbia professor Judith Scott-Clayton for the Brookings Institution analyzed national data on student debt and repayment, and was released by the U.S. Education Department in October 2017.

Scott-Clayton projected that about 40 percent of the students who entered college in 2004 will default by 2023, based on patterns of defaults from earlier student groups.

While Kucinich wrote about student debt as a broad problem, the Brookings report said default rates are higher for students who attend for-profit colleges and for students of color. “The results suggest that diffuse concern with rising levels of average debt is misplaced,” Scott-Clayton wrote wrote.

Scott-Clayton, the author of the Brookings report, told PolitiFact that her projections do not adjust for changes in student composition, institutional choices, or loan characteristics that might relate to the likelihood of default. It is possible the actual rates will be higher or lower.

Sandy Baum, who wrote a report for the College Board, sent PolitiFact data showing that the two-year cohort default rate was nowhere near 40 percent in the past couple of decades. The high point in the two-year cohort default rate between 1987 and 2010 was 22.4 percent in 1990. (Default rates are now measured in three-year cohorts.)

We found no data to support Kucinich’s claim that the student default rate approaches 50 percent today.

The U.S. Education Department released data in 2017 which showed the national default rate for the 2014 cohort was 11.5 percent.

Mark Kantrowitz, a national expert on student debt, said that while the numbers Kucinich cited aren’t justified, he has a point about the problem of student debt.

“Generally, the burden of paying for college has shifted from the federal and state government to families because of a failure of government support to keep pace with increases in college costs on a per-student, inflation-adjusted basis,” he said. “Since family income has been flat and loans are the only form of aid that has any degree of elasticity, this has driven annual increases in borrowing to pay for college.”

Our ruling

Kucinich’s claim was based on a report that predicted 40 percent of students who entered college in 2004 will default by 2023. So that’s a prediction about the future, not a default rate for 10 years ago. We found no data to support Kucinich’s claim that about 50 percent of students default today. We rate this claim False.


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