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New study: Almost half of borrowers will default on student loans in coming years

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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- If you feel like you may never pay off your student loans, you’re not alone -- over 1 million people default on their student loans every year.

According to studies from research groups Urban Institute and the Brookings Institute, by 2023, 40 percent of borrowers may default on their student loans, by not making payments for nine months or more.

The average time it takes for someone to pay off their student loans is 19.4 years, and according to an Urban Institute study, student loans are the second largest debt category in the U.S., ranking behind mortgages.

Defaults are actually higher among those who borrow smaller amounts and those who never finished college.

“It’s not surprising that those who go to a for-profit university had the most debt, and even those who don’t finish have high amounts of debt,” said University of North Dakota economics Professor David Flynn.

Flynn said stagnant incomes could be a reason for student loan debt.

“We’re still dealing with the fallout from the financial crisis (of 2009, 2010),” Flynn said. “Income has remained stagnant; not all incomes have recovered since the crisis.”

In addition, a factor in college graduates increasingly defaulting on their student loans may be that more people are going to college, Flynn said.

“More people are viewing college as a way to get the career and earnings that they want,” he said.

These issues have been around for a long time, Flynn said, but are just now coming to a head because of a bigger underlying issue -- the rising cost of attending college.

“Eventually all major players are going to have to have a reckoning on what we’re doing,” Flynn said. “Why is this necessary? Are we sending too many people to college?”

Taking on a reasonable amount of debt can help when it comes time to start paying off student loans, Flynn said. The first step in knowing how much to take out is for borrowers to have a realistic expectation for what their income will be after graduation. Borrowers often have higher expectations for their future income, according to Flynn.

Income growth is uneven, Flynn said. Some fields are seeing increases, like computer-based jobs, programming and finance, but others are stagnant. College graduates should be aware of those things, Flynn said, so that they can borrow accordingly.  

“Generally, the idea is that a college degree pays for itself, but if you’re borrowing way more than you’re projected to make, that’s not going to be the case,” Flynn said.

Grand Forks native and UND graduate, Alicia Kellebrew, paid her own way through college but still came out in debt. When Kellebrew graduated in 2012, she had about $20,000 in student loan debt.

“Even when you’re making a normal person income, it can get hard to pay student loans and make a car payment at the same time,” Kellebrew said. “And I’m lucky that I didn’t dig myself such a big hole.”

Kellebrew thinks that society has normalized debt, and that people are getting too comfortable taking on more debt than they can handle.

Kellebrew is also a certified financial counselor, and she said that about half of all the people she sees want to talk about their student loan debt. Kellebrew is not shocked by the studies that point to a high number of people defaulting on their student loans by 2023. She talks to a lot of people who have.

“You shouldn’t need an attorney to figure out what you need to do to pay off your student loans,” Kellebrew said.

When they graduated from the University of Jamestown, Annika Caldwell and her husband, Logan, had a combined debt of $97,000, about $40,000 of it student loans.

They have been debt free since March 2017. One of the ways they did this is living on only 15 percent of their income and putting the rest toward their debt.

“I will be totally honest with you it was not fun while we were doing it,” Caldwell said. “But it was so worth it.”

Now, Caldwell is a stay-at-home mom and has dedicated her days to writing a book, “23 and Debt Free,” and becoming a financial coach. Her book will be available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble’s website starting Oct. 23.

Her advice to those struggling is to make a budget.

“If you’re not budgeting and just swiping the card, hoping the numbers come out right at the end of the month, you’re not aware of that spending and you’re going to spend more than you need to,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell and her husband use an Excel spreadsheet to budget, but when they were first married, they had a budget on paper. There are also budgeting apps that can be useful, Caldwell said, such as EveryDollar and Mint.

“Your budget is your opportunity to tell your money what to do,” she said.

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