Private Student Loans Set to Stage a Major Comeback

Recent governmental analysis has shown that about one-fourth of all federal financial aid is directed toward students who attend private, for-profit colleges, even though these students represent just 12 percent of the national college population.

Private student loans are non-federal loans – student loans issued by banks and private lenders, rather than by the federal government.

Private student loans are credit-based loans carrying variable interest rates that can be as much as three to five times as high as the fixed interest rates on federal college loans. Additionally, private student loans don’t generally offer the flexible repayment options and borrower hardship protections offered by federal education loans.

The recent substantial drop in the amount of private student loans being issued can be partly attributed to greater publicity of the drawbacks of these loans in comparison to federal student loans.

Consumer advocates, student groups, and the U.S. Department of Education have campaigned heavily over the past three years for the benefits of low-cost federal college loans over private loans, which the groups maintain are more expensive and higher risk for vulnerable student borrowers, many of whom are financially inexperienced and who may not be aware of exactly what kind of long-term debt burden they’re signing up for.

Private Student Loans Poised to Surge at For-Profit Colleges The student loan default rate among students from for-profit colleges is exceptionally high because these students – a large proportion of whom are low-income, minorities, or returning students – tend to have a harder time translating their for-profit degree into gainful employment, and they’re carrying much more student loan debt than their post-graduation income will allow them to repay.

New proposed federal financial aid regulations seek to rein in what critics of for-profit colleges see as runaway student debt levels by instituting a loan default threshold that would render a for-profit institution ineligible to offer federal financial aid to its students if its students have a sustained high student loan default rate.

A proposed federal “gainful employment” rule would also yank federal financial aid funds from for-profit schools whose students graduate with excessive debt-to-income levels and are unable, in general, to find work – “gainful employment” – that will allow them to earn enough to pay off their student loans.

But in the absence of federal financial aid, private loans remain the financing of choice among students – particularly in the current economy, with home equity, credit card lines, investments, and college savings largely decimated – and some private lenders are readying to fill in the gaps left by the suspension of federal financial aid at ineligible institutions.

According to analysts, large private student loan lenders like Wells Fargo and Sallie Mae will reap the benefits of the proposed federal financial aid sanctions, which are set to go into effect in 2012.

Lingering Recession Forces Students Toward Pricier Private Student Loans The re-emergence of private student loans won’t be limited to just for-profit colleges, however. The rise, fall, and rise-again of private student loans as a part of U.S. students’ long-term financial aid future is tied directly to increases in the costs of college and the failure of federal financial aid to keep pace with the increases.

“Increases in college costs are the primary drivers of increases in student borrowing, especially when need-based grants don’t keep pace with higher college costs,” Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, told Reuters.

And as the sour economy drags on, students’ need for funding sources to help pay for college will only become greater.

Publicly funded colleges and universities are reeling from a string of spending reductions for higher education and are passing along those losses to students in the form of tuition and fee increases.

“Private student loan volume could grow in the double digits next year because of tuition hikes driven by state budget constraints,” said Michael Taiano, a financial analyst at Sandler O’Neill.

At the same time, a record number of students are seeking a higher education, enrolling or re-enrolling in colleges and universities, stretching the federal financial aid budget thin.

“Federal budgets are constrained by how much in aid they can deliver,” said FBR Capital Markets analyst Matt Snowling. “So the funding gap is going to be filled by private loans.”

As the lender-in-chief for federal college loans, the federal government is also beginning to experience first-hand the impact of a growing number of loan defaults, as a national populace in the midst of a recession and 10-percent unemployment struggles to keep up with its monthly bills.

Recent graduates are leaving school with record-high debt from loans and diminished prospects for employment. Parents who in other years might have helped their children pay for college are finding themselves being turned down for federal parent loans because they have joined the ranks of the unemployed and don’t qualify for the loans based on their own creditworthiness.

All of these factors are re-opening the door to private loans, despite the federal government’s best efforts to steer families from private student loans to federal financial aid options.

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