More than one in five borrowers of federal student loans who attend for-profit colleges default within three years of beginning repayment, new figures made available by the U.S. Department of Education show.
Historically, the government has reported such figures in terms of how many students default within two years — a figure that stands at 6.7 percent of student borrowers overall and about 11 percent at for-profit schools.
But the new three-year numbers, though preliminary, give a clearer picture of whether a student at a particular school will default, and the government will soon begin using them to help decide which colleges qualify for taxpayer-supported aid programs.
Currently, schools with default rates over 25 percent for three straight years can be disqualified, but experts argued that schools were gaming the two-year figures. So starting in 2012, colleges will be judged on how many students default within three years of starting repayment, though the new threshold for sanctions will be 30 percent instead of 25 percent.
Nearly 12 percent of borrowers who began repayment in fiscal 2007 defaulted within three years — up from 9.2 percent for 2006. But at for-profit colleges, the rate was 21.2 percent within three years, the Associated Press calculated from the government's data. That was up from 18.8 percent for 2006.
Harris Miller, president and CEO of the Career College Association, which represents for-profit colleges, said the increase reflects the poor economy. He also said high default rates don't measure a school's quality and noted his group's members enroll large numbers of low-income students.
"If you accept low-income students you're going to have high default rates," he said. "It has nothing to do with whether you're for-profit or not."
In recent years, only a handful of institutions have lost eligibility for federal aid because of high default rates. The new data, however, show more than 300 colleges — more than 85 percent of them for-profit schools — had three-year default rates higher than 30 percent. Those schools will have to improve when the rules kick in or risk losing federal aid.
Most of those schools are smaller, local institutions and not the giant national chains. Among the better-known institutions, the data indicate a three-year default rate of 15.9 percent at University of Phoenix, 23.2 percent at Kaplan University and 17.1 percent at DeVry University.