For the first time since regulators started keeping records, Americans have let more of their student loan balances fall into delinquency than their credit cards. As reported by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, more than 11 percent of the nation's $956 billion in student loans have gone unpaid for longer than 90 days. In contrast, credit card delinquencies have dropped for four straight years.
According to a report in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, guaranteed student loans and rising education costs have resulted in exploding debt levels among groups of Americans least likely to pay the money back. College dropouts default on their student loans nearly four times as often as graduates. However, a stifling job market led many graduates in one survey to call their student loans "illegitimate."
As the federal government backs increasingly risky student loans, banks have succeeded with long-term plans to reduce risk among their personal lending portfolios. A combination of business decisions and federal legislation has resulted in a far more conservative climate for credit card offers than before the recession. Student credit cards are harder to come by, as new credit card applications must include a statement of income that banks can use to determine a consumer's ability to repay debt.
Overall student loan balances have outpaced credit card balances for over two years because of those changes. As consumers have started using balance transfer offers and no-frills credit cards more wisely, many Americans still struggle to pay for college educations that still seem essential despite a job market that rewards degree holders with relatively low paying jobs.
Worse still, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that their delinquency statistics don't account for the effects of student loans in grace periods, forbearance, or deferment. Factoring out these accounts, New York Fed officials told CNBC, would put the "real" delinquency rate for student loans above 20 percent.