Millions of student loan borrowers don't have a diploma to show for their debt

By Abigail Johnson Hess

U.S. student debt has increased by more than 100% over the past 10 years and today, 44.7 million borrowers collectively owe more than $1.7 trillion dollars in student debt. 

But not all of these borrowers have a degree to show for their debts

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 41% of first-time full-time college students earn a bachelor's degree in four years, and only 59% earn a bachelor's in six years. And when looking at those who took out student loans to finance their degree, these graduation rates are relatively similar

After the six-year mark, many students drop out. The college completion rate after eight years is just 60.4%.

Borrowers who struggle the most "tend to be more in the category of a student who started at a community college, some unforeseen event occurred in their life, and they didn't graduate," Phillip Levine, professor of economics at Wellesley College previously told CNBC Make It. "They made an investment that had no return, they're stuck with this debt, and getting out of that debt is difficult for them."

The default rate among borrowers who didn't complete their degree is three times as high as the rate for borrowers who did earn a diploma. 

Beth Akers, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a staff economist at the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush says student loan borrowers without a degree constitutes "the number one crisis in student lending."

"I've for a long time pushed back on the popular narratives about student loans being this crushing, economic problem for society, but I think that in terms of zeroing in on places where students debt is a very serious problem, it's this debt and no degree issue where we see people having serious financial hardship as a result," she says. 

She says one possible solution is to "front-load some of the Pell grants that students get over the course of their college career so that they get more of it in the first few semesters. That way, if they try college, and it doesn't work for them, they've used up grant dollars instead of having to borrow for themselves."

Anthony Carnavale, director of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce says individuals with student loans but no degree should be prioritized in student loan forgiveness efforts. 

"I think the loan forgiveness process is a good process and it's been reactivated by the Biden administration," he says. "In the mean, the loans that people get to go to college pay off. There is a minority of cases where they don't and this is one of them because if you don't get the degree there's a sheepskin penalty." 

The "sheepskin penalty" refers to the pay increase workers with diplomas benefit from, that workers without degrees can't access.

"There's an eight to 10% bump just from getting the damn piece of paper," says Carnavale. 

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