Student loan default rate drops to three-year low

GW’s student loan default rate dropped one-tenth to 1.4 percent in 2012, marking the first time more GW graduates had been able to pay off their loans for two years.

The University’s default rate has hovered at about 1.5 percent since 2010, though it has remained one of the lowest in the country over the past five years. The about 1.4 percent default rate is GW’s lowest since 2009, when just under 1 percent of graduates couldn’t pay their loans.

Experts say the University’s loan default rate could be so low because of the wealthier financial profile of GW students, who may have had an easier time making their loan payments with strong family financial support.

Students default when they miss payments for more than 270 days. The data about GW, which the Department of Education released this past week, applied to students who began repaying their loans in October 2012 and defaulted by the end of September 2013.

Many of GW’s peer schools have similar loan default rates – 1.3 percent at Georgetown and Vanderbilt universities – likely because they attract similar students. Tulane University had the highest rate of GW’s competitor schools at 5.5 percent, followed by American University, with 3.3 percent of graduates unable to make their payments.

The national student loan default rate for that year fell from 14.7 percent to 13.7 percent.

Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, said private institutions like GW tend to have low default rates because of relatively high selectivity and a low percentage of students who leave before graduating.

“Part of the reason is the large percentage of the students coming to GW come from relatively prosperous family to begin with,” Vedder said. “They were good students in high school, have high grades, so they are probably less likely to drop out.”

Vedder added that public schools, which may be less selective, are more likely to have higher default rates.

For example, the University of D.C., the only public university in the District, saw its default rate grow by 4.5 percent, reaching about 19 percent, according to the data. The school accepts about 63 percent of all applicants but has historically struggled with low graduation rates.

Forty-seven percent of students who graduated from GW in 2012 left with some sort of debt, typically carrying a load of $33,398 on average, according to data from the Project on Student Debt.

Mark Kantrowitz, founder of the college affordability website, said tuition costs also factor into the type of students who apply to schools like GW.

“[GW’s] a high-cost institution,” he said. “The higher the cost of the institution, you’re also going to enroll a relatively wealthy group of students.”

At GW, members of the Class of 2018 will pay $48,700 in tuition, making its tuition the sixth-highest in the country, according to the latest data from the Department of Education.

When scholarships and other forms of financial aid are taken into account, GW’s net price is not among the highest in the nation. Total cost of attendance for freshmen this year is expected to total about $64,500.

Csellar declined to say what percentage of GW students take out federal loans.

Programs that a university offers to teach students how to pay back loans also impact the average number of students who end up with debt loads larger than they can pay, experts say.

Csellar said GW provides students with resources on loan repayment, while the federal government offers programs that can help graduates understand how to avoid default.

“We are proud that our students understand their responsibility in repaying their educational loans and are making smart choices in financing their education,” she said in a statement.

William Elliott, founder of the Assets and Education Initiative at the University of Kansas, said there is not always a way to tell if a student is going to be unable to pay off debt, but colleges should look for alternative funding so students don’t have to take out as much in loans.

“The problem is if you’re low-income and you’re in college, there aren’t any other alternatives that aren’t going to cause you some harm in the long-term,” he said. “It might be the better of two evils.”

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