The share of student borrowers who default on federal loans soon after payments start coming due has fallen, the government reported Wednesday.
The national student loan default rate, 14.7 percent a year ago, stands at 13.7 percent.
One of the most closely watched metrics in higher education, the default rate in recent years has fueled debate over the value of a college degree and the tendency of students at some schools to take on too much debt. Schools with default rates of 20 percent or more have drawn scrutiny.
“While it’s good news that the default rate decreased from last year, the number of students who default on their federal student loans is still too high,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement, “and we remain committed to working with postsecondary education institutions and borrowers to ensure that student debt is manageable.”
A key factor influencing default rates is the job market. The Obama administration also has pushed colleges to pay more attention to the issue.
The latest default rate represents the percentage of student borrowers who began the repayment process on federal loans during the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, 2010, and then defaulted by Sept. 30, 2013.
In fiscal 2011, more than 4.7 million student borrowers from about 6,000 schools began repaying loans. Of those, about 650,000 defaulted.
For public colleges, which educate most postsecondary students, the default rate fell to 12.9 percent from 13 percent a year ago.
For private nonprofit colleges, the rate fell to 7.2 percent from 8.2 percent.
For for-profit colleges, the rate fell to 19.1 percent from 21.8 percent.
In some cases, schools with high default rates face a loss of eligibility to participate in federal student aid programs.
The government said 21 schools, most of them run for profit, face sanctions for having default rates of at least 30 percent for three straight years, or a rate higher than 40 percent for one year. Several of the 21 are cosmetology schools.
Experts caution that borrowing is more common at some schools than at others.
“At schools with both high borrowing rates and high default rates, too many students are clearly leaving school worse off than before they entered,” said Debbie Cochrane, research director at the Institute for College Access and Success. “At schools where borrowing isn’t the norm, high default rates are troubling but say less about the school as a whole.”
In the District of Columbia, federal data show the only school with a default rate above 30 percent was the for-profit Bennett Career Institute (34.4 percent, up from 33.8 percent). The rate at for-profit Strayer University was 14.9 percent, down from 15.1 percent.
Among private and nonprofit schools in the city, the rates were: Trinity Washington University, 12.7 percent (down 1.5 percentage points); Howard University, 11.6 percent (up 0.9); Gallaudet University, 7.3 percent (down 0.7); American University, 3.3 percent (down 1.3); Catholic University, 2.6 percent (unchanged); George Washington University, 1.4 percent (down 0.1); and Georgetown University, 0.9 percent (down 0.4).
At the public University of the District of Columbia, the rate was 18.6 percent (up 4.5).
At the University of Maryland, the rate was 2.8 percent (down 1.4). At George Mason University, it was 1.8 percent (down 0.9). At the University of Virginia, it was 1.7 percent (down 1.2).