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Americans are having more trouble paying off their student debt than their houses

We’re getting worse at paying off our student loans. (Michael Okoniewski/Bloomberg News)
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Americans are struggling to make timely payments on student loans, according to new data from researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — even as we dutifully shrink other types of balances.

Student-loan delinquencies increased at the end of 2014: 11.3 percent were at least 90 days overdue in the last three months of 2014, up from 11.1 percent in the previous quarter.

Meanwhile, on the bright, if counterintuitive, side: All other forms of debt have been showing lower delinquency rates, including credit card and mortgage loans. The New York Fed did note, however, that auto loan delinquencies have largely been dropping, but rose slightly last quarter.

America’s total student loan debt is now nearly $1.2 trillion. One reason the burden is difficult to pay off, Fed researchers wrote: “Student debt is not dischargeable in bankruptcy like other types of debt … Delinquent or defaulted student loans can stagnate on borrowers’ credit reports.”

It wasn’t always like this. Student loans were the smallest form of household debt until 2009, the Fed data shows.

The recession apparently scrambled our borrowing habits. Americans shrank other debts during the economic downturn but kept taking money for college, long trumpeted as the ticket out of hard times.

The surge is fueled by more people borrowing — and borrowing larger amounts. The number of borrowers rose 92 percent between 2004 and 2014, according to the Fed researchers. The average student loan balance grew 74 percent.

Nearly 39 percent of borrowers owe less than $10,000. The median balance: $14,000. About 1.8 million people — 4 percent of borrowers — owe more than $100,000.

Graduates with staggering balances face grim options, unless they’re particularly well off. Student loan refinancing, for example, can significantly drive down interest rates — but it’s available only to those with steady incomes and high credit scores.

Another debt management route: Sacrifice. Economists find cash-strapped borrowers tend to delay buying homes.

Recent history shows the devastating impact. Student loan debt was a significant wealth drain on Generation X, Pew researchers recently found. Millennials could ultimately be hit the hardest.

In the meantime, you can arm yourself with this database of the highest-paying majors and this student loan calculator.

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