In a state that’s less prone than most to student loan payback problems, some of Hawaii’s two-year colleges are showing alarmingly high rates of default.

Three out of every ten borrowers at Hilo’s Hawaii Community College, for example, defaulted on their loans after entering repayment in 2010. Nearly a fourth of the students from the University of Hawaii Maui College did, too.

The Honolulu Community College rate for the same period pushed 18 percent, but the national average three-year default rate for public two-year colleges was 21 percent.

Hawaii as a whole is well under the national student loan rate.

Students on the Honolulu Community College campus.

Students on the Honolulu Community College campus. (Unlike Hawaii Community College and UH Maui College, HCC’s default rate is not particularly high.)

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The percentage of University of Hawaii at Manoa borrowers who defaulted on their federal student loans within three years of when their payment schedule began in 2010 was slightly more than 4 percent — a heartening statistic considering the default rate for students across the country as a whole was nearly 15 percent. The default rate for Hawaii Pacific University students was also about 4 percent.

Overall, just 9 percent of Hawaii’s former college students — representing an array of public, nonprofit and for-profit institutions — defaulted on their loans three years after they went into repayment in 2010, the most recent year for which meaningful default data from the U.S. Department of Education is available.

But the statewide data masks grave disparities among individual campuses across Hawaii. These discrepancies offer a glimpse into which students are getting by after college — and which aren’t.

Nearly all the thousands of borrowers from the state’s four-year campuses paid back their loans when they were supposed to.

Too many recent college students, particularly on the neighbor islands, “are struggling under the burden of student loan debt, and it is troubling that when our young people are just starting out in their lives they have already amassed such large amounts of debt,” said U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, who’s worked on various student-debt legislation over the years, in an email to Civil Beat.

Hirono helped introduce a bill this year that would’ve allowed students who’ve defaulted to refinance their loans and start repaying at the new, lower 3.86 percent interest rate, but the bill died in the Senate on Wednesday.

Nearly all the thousands of borrowers from the state’s four-year campuses paid back their loans when they were supposed to, but staggering percentages of students who attended select specialized for-profit schools and community colleges failed to do so. These statistics reflect national trends, according to Matthew Reed, program director at the Institute for College Access and Success.

Washington Tackles Student Debt

The country’s growing $1.3 trillion student debt crisis has gotten attention in Washington this week. President Barack Obama took executive action at the White House on Monday to create new repayment options and ramp up outreach efforts to student borrowers, and members of Congress faced off over separate high-profile proposals on Wednesday.

bill introduced by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren that would’ve allowed borrowers to refinance their student loans at lower rates was blocked by the Senate on Wednesday after it failed to garner the votes needed to overcome a Republican-led filibuster. The measure’s opponents dismissed the measure as doomed from the get-go, saying it wouldn’t have helped graduates manage their debt.

Meanwhile, the percentage of college students who default on their loans is growing as the cost of higher education skyrockets and the economy that they enter falters. Tuition at four-year universities has more than tripled over the past three decades; tuition at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, excluding fees, grew from $3,312 in 2003 to $8,664 in 2012, a 176 percent jump.

Tuition at four-year universities has more than tripled over the past three decades.

Hawaii’s student loan borrowers owe nearly $24,000 on average, according to a report released Tuesday by the White House’s Domestic Policy Council.

Defaulting, which in this case typically refers to students who’ve ultimately missed more than a year’s worth of monthly payments, comes with serious consequences, including steep collection fees, a poor credit score and the threat of legal action and income seizure, among other penalties.

Civil Beat looked at three-year default data for Hawaii’s “2010 cohort” — in other words, the group of borrowers who were supposed to start repaying their loans in the 2010 fiscal year as part of their agreements with the federal government.

The default data included in this article refers only to borrowers who took out Stafford, direct subsidized or direct unsubsidized loans to attend college — not other types of federal student loans such as PLUS or Perkins loans.

Of the state’s current 129,000 total student loan borrowers, about 6,700 of them were supposed to start repaying their loans in the 2010 fiscal year as part of their agreements with the federal government, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Most of them did as they were supposed to, but 609 of them — or 9 percent — didn’t.

Default Rates Vary Greatly Across Hawaii

Here’s an overview of the three-year default rates at individual campuses, along with the percentage of students receiving any kind of financial aid and the percentage of students relying on Pell Grants:

Click on the individual icons to see the school’s financial aid information:

Reed said Hawaii’s disparities are typical given the factors that typically correlate with high default rates, such as income levels and unemployment in a given area.

Unemployment in Hawaii County, for example, grew from 3 percent in 2006 to 9.9 percent in 2010. On Maui County, it grew from 2.4 percent to 8.5 percent from 2006 to 2010.

Default rates, according to Reed , also tend to correlate with the percentage of students who complete the program. For-profit schools and community colleges tend to have high dropout rates. Reed also pointed out that the schools with high default rates have fewer students taking out federal loans, so the data is actually referring to a small group of people.

One of the most effective ways to lessen the likelihood of loan default is tying repayment options to income.

“At small schools there are a lot of extremes,” Reed said. “So it’s as much to do with individual students as it is with the school as a whole.”

One of the most effective ways to lessen the likelihood of loan default is tying repayment options to income, Reed said.

An example is Obama’s plan to expand a program allowing borrowers to cap their repayments at 10 percent of their income. The “Pay as You Earn” option is already available to students who started borrowing after 2007, and under Obama’s order the option will be available to those who borrowed at any time. The program is expected to help ease the debt of another 5 million borrowers.

That’s on top of a program created by Congress in 2007 to cap the repayments at 15 percent of a person’s income. But many borrowers, according to Hirono, who helped create the legislation, don’t sign up.

Various UH campuses are trying to tackle the problem with their own programs as well. UH Maui College’s default prevention plan identifies students at the highest risk of default and comes up with intervention strategies, including online financial literacy lessons. The school diverted approximately 220 students from possible default last year, according to Nicole Beattie, a spokeswoman for the college.

It also does reaches out to former students in default, contacting them via phone and email on a regular basis, Beattie said. But the college has struggled to fund these efforts, particularly with students who have outdated contact information.

Following up with these students for re-enrollment and other services has been “extremely challenging,” Beattie said.

Meanwhile, Hawaii Community College this past spring started using a program called In Touch to help past borrowers identify their options, said spokesman Thatcher Moats. From February to April, the program helped 30 former students come up with ways to resolve their default status.

“However, the responsibility of paying student loans ultimately rests with the borrower,” Moats said.

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