How much do parents borrow for their children’s college education?

The U.S. Department of Education for the first time has released data on the amount of debt parents carry for students who attend specific colleges and universities. Released on the College Scorecard website, the information reflects Parent PLUS loans held for undergraduate students who graduated in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years.

The data, The Wall Street Journal notes, includes only Parent PLUS loans, not loans from private lenders. It adds to existing scorecard data on how much students borrow for individual programs across various colleges and universities, as well as how much they earn after graduating. 

The Education Department said it hopes the new data will offer families “a more complete financial picture of how recent graduates have paid for their postsecondary education, especially if their parents took on debt to help them cover some or all of the costs.” 

The main takeaway, The Chronicle of Higher Education writes, is that many Parent PLUS borrowers are “taking out loans whose size could upend their finances.” According to The Chronicle’s analysis, as well as one from The Wall Street Journal

  • At more than 500 institutions, parents borrowed a median amount of $25,000 to $50,000. 
  • At almost 130 four-year institutions—primarily small, private colleges, including art schools and historically Black colleges and universities—parents borrowed a median amount of $50,000 or higher. At dozens of schools, parents were borrowing nearly six-figure amounts. 
  • Most parents of students who ultimately dropped out—across both public and private institutions—owe more than $10,000.
  • Parents at Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Georgia, carried the largest Parent PLUS loans—with a median debt of $112,127. About half of parents took out PLUS loans. Parents of Pell grant recipients had a median Parent PLUS loan amount of $84,000. 

Saying that those loan amounts can be “crippling” for families, Spelman’s president reports that the college is working aggressively to secure philanthropic donations toward financial aid.

A brief reprieve for borrowers

This expanded College Scorecard data comes amid intense debate about the best way to address rising higher education debt and relieve borrowers. In the short term, student loan borrowers will be excused from making payments for at least one additional month. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on December 4 announced that the department would extend the existing suspension of interest accrual and collections activity through January 31; the forbearance had been scheduled to expire December 31. 

While advocates applauded the relief—and said President-Elect Biden is likely to further extend it when he takes office—they also said the timing could prove tricky with the transition to a new administration in January. “The one-month extension certainly provides short-term consistency but does not solve the problem of how to effectively turn the system back on again and make sure borrowers don’t fall through the cracks,” Sarah Sattelmeyer, director of the Pew Charitable Trust’s student borrower program, told Inside Higher Ed.

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