Blog Post | October 22, 2008

Better Data on Student Borrowing Needed

Author: By Matthew Reed, a Policy Analyst

Matthew Reed, a Policy Analyst at the Institute for College Access & Success guest blogs this week at Higher Ed Watch, a higher education news and policy initiative from the New America Foundation.

Student debt is up again, according to the data that we at the Project on Student Debt released today. One of the lessons we have learned from putting together these reports for the past three years is just how difficult it is to get timely and accurate information about students’ loans. Congress and the next leadership of the U.S. Department of Education could take some simple steps to improve that situation.

For our purposes, the most useful data comes from annual surveys of colleges by college guide publishers such as Peterson’s. The utility of this data, however, is limited because so much of the information is missing or unreliable. Colleges self-report and many fail to respond to the survey on an annual basis, resulting in missing or repeated data.

In addition, colleges use different methodologies to calculate these figures, depending on the capabilities of their data systems and the expertise and interest of the staff members responsible for filling the surveys out. While student debt figures for some schools stay the same for years as no one bothers to update them, at other schools, they fluctuate wildly from year to year as staff turn over or new software is used make the latest calculations.

The Department of Education maintains a database tracking students loans — the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS). Unfortunately, the Department doesn’t make sufficient use of it. At the Project on Student Debt, we believe that expanding the information entered into this system and the reports generated from this system would go a long way toward providing more useful information for policymakers, student borrowers, and the public.

Judging by the legislation authorizing NSLDS, Congress clearly expected the Department to use the database to not only provide lenders and institutions with the information necessary to operate the loan programs, but to provide borrowers with information about their own loans and policymakers with information about student borrowing generally.

The Higher Education Act directs the Department to use the database in part for research and policy analysis regarding student debt levels. This includes analyzing factors such as family income and the type of institution attended. It also identifies providing information to student borrowers about the current status of their loans as another important purpose of the system.

As of now, Department officials have made very limited use of the database for these purposes. The agency currently uses NSLDS to calculate cohort default rates for colleges, and to report on the aggregate student loan volume, broken down by program (Direct Lending versus the Federal Family Education Loan Program for example), type (federally subsidized or unsubsidized Stafford Loans, for example), state, and sector of higher education (two year versus four year schools, for instance). While this is useful information about the overall size and growth of these programs, it does not give us any indication of the debt burden faced by students at particular institutions.

The Department needs to make much more detailed data on student borrowing available. Using NSLDS, the Department should publish the following information each year:

– Loan volume by loan program and loan type for each institution (unsubsidized/subsidized Stafford loans, PLUS loans, etc.)

– Average cumulative debt levels for students graduating from college each year at the state, national, and institutional levels

– Average cumulative debt levels for students leaving college without completing a degree or certificate program

– Data on borrowing patterns by income level and level of demonstrated financial need

– Data on borrowing patterns by students who receive federal Pell Grants

These statistics would provide valuable and timely information to policymakers regarding trends in student borrowing and indebtedness. Moreover, we believe that publishing this data would provide some accountability for institutions regarding the way in which they package student loans.

But to truly get an accurate picture of student borrowing trends, one additional step is needed – because private student loans, which up until recently have been the fastest growing form of student loans, are not currently included in NSLDS.

We are urging Congress to require lenders to report all the private loans they make to NSLDS. Such a requirement would be beneficial to both students and policymakers. As of now, we don’t know the full extent of private loan borrowing that is occurring. In many cases, these high-cost loans are marketed directly to students and neither the institutions nor any government agency is aware that they have been made. As a result, students often take out these loans without realizing that lower-cost federal loans are available.

Requiring the inclusion of private loans in NSLDS would fit in perfectly with one of the main purposes of the database: to give borrowers a place to go to see all of their student loans. It is important for borrowers to have access to information on the current holders and servicers of their loans, as well as the current balance and payments due. They should be able to see this information for all of their loans, not just federal ones. Students are often unclear on the distinctions between the different programs under which they borrow, especially when the loans may come from the same lender. Only later during repayment do many students realize the importance of knowing which lender holds their loans and what program it was made under.

As student debt levels continue to increase, it is crucial that policymakers and the public have accurate, timely information about patterns of student borrowing. The Department of Education should use the data already available in NSLDS to provide this information. In addition, lenders should be required to report private student loans to NSLDS. Taken together, these steps will ensure that students and policymakers have the information they need to make good decisions regarding student loans.