More Valley students are defaulting on federal student loans soon after they get out of college, and some of the highest default rates are found at the region's community colleges.
The higher default rates, reported by the U.S. Department of Education, come as college students confront a perfect storm of circumstances. Rising college costs create a need to borrow more money for tuition and other expenses, and a near-stagnant economy makes it harder for new graduates to find jobs.
(To check a schools student loan default rate, go to fblinks.com/default)
From Stanislaus County in the north to Kings and Tulare counties in the south, nearly one in five community college students who took out federal loans defaulted less than two years after leaving college in 2010. That's more than double the 9.1% default rate for all federal student loan borrowers nationwide, and nearly triple California's rate of 7.2%.
The problem isn't that students are dodging their obligations, but many don't have the money to keep up with payments after getting out of school.
"I think most of the people who have defaulted are not proud of it," said William Garcia, associate dean of student services at College of the Sequoias in Visalia. "Most of them would tell you, 'As soon as I get back on my feet and get a steady job, I would love to have the opportunity to pay the loan back.' "
Tied to jobless rate
Most blame the recession that began in 2007 and its continuing effects on the Valley's labor market.
"I definitely think the economy has a big role to play," said Joseph Koroma, financial aid director at West Hills-Coalinga. "Students are taking out more loans than before. Their initial intention is quite clear: 'I'll get a loan and, after I graduate, I'll get a job and start making payments.'
"But unfortunately, it is not always coming out the way students would like it to be. Sometimes they don't even graduate."
Even in the best of times, the Valley has higher unemployment rates than the state and nation. That has only intensified since the recession hit, said Garcia, who is also director of financial aid at COS.
"A lot of these students were taking out loans when the economy was good," Garcia said. "They were told to invest in their education, and when they get out there's a job for them."
But the difficult job market has created a stark new reality.
"No one anticipated this recession lasting this long or hurting us this hard," Garcia said. "Six months after they graduate, those first loan payments are due.
"Those who are unemployed or underemployed are thinking about survival -- a roof over their head, food on the plate or clothes on their back," he said. "When they set priorities, they see student loans as one of the first things to let go."
Because college costs are rising faster than the average family income, many students have little choice but to take out larger loans for college, Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, wrote in a May 2012 economic analysis.
After graduation, they face a tough job market where wages for new graduates have fallen by 5.4% since 2000 when adjusted for inflation.
"For the next 10 to 15 years," Shierholz wrote, "the Class of 2012 will likely earn less than they would have if they had graduated when job opportunities were plentiful."
The default problem isn't confined to public institutions or to publicly funded loans. Some of the highest default rates are at private, for-profit colleges, universities or vocational schools.