80% of Federal Student Loan Borrowers Aren’t Paying.

Alan Collinge
3 min readDec 21, 2023

The Media is Grossly Misreporting the Repayment Rate.

The New York Times recently reported that 60% of federal student loan borrowers who were due to restart payments actually paid on their student loans in the first few months of repayment. This is grossly misleading. The truth is that over 80% of borrowers are not paying.

How could the New York Times get it so wrong? There are two reasons.

First, the Times reported that 60% of 22 million borrowers- or 13.2 million borrowers- made payments on their loans. However, there are 43.4 million federal student loan borrowers in total, and many are in forbearance or deferment (and thus, don’t “receive a bill”). This directly demonstrates a TRUE non-payment rate of nearly 70%.

Total Number of Federal Student Loan Borrowers

But it’s even worse than that: 5-6 million people are technically “paying”, but their “payments” are $0 because they are in an Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plan and their incomes are low enough to trigger $0 payments. In 2019, Ben Miller reported that half of the people in IDR plans (or about 4.3 million people) were making these “$0 payments”. This trend has held true for the newest IDR plan (The SAVE Plan), where 53% of enrollees have $0 payments. Out of 10.2 million borrowers enrolled in IDR Plans, this is about 5.4 million additional people who aren’t paying, but are counted as payers.

Number of Borrowers in Income Driven Repayment plans.

Therefore, of the 13.2 million “payers”, it is likely that only around 7.8 million are actually paying non-zero amounts. This gives a true repayment rate among all 43.4 million borrowers of 18%. In other words: 82% of all borrowers are not making payments on their loans.

But let’s be fair: There are 7.6 million people who are currently in-school, or on their grace periods. It is fair to exclude them from the data, so that 7.8 million of the 35.8 million people who should be paying, aren’t. This is a true repayment rate of 21.8%, or a non-payment rate of 78.2%.

The Conclusion: Nearly 80% of all borrowers who should be paying aren’t.

The Conclusion: Nearly 80% of all borrowers who should be paying aren’t.

We contacted staff at the Department of Education to clarify if they are counting $0 payers as payers, and they confirmed that they are counting these borrowers as payers in the 60% repayment figure cited by the NYT.

For the record: Even before the pandemic, we reported that more than half of all borrowers were not repaying their loans. We had been predicting a non-payment rate of around 70% when the loans were restarted. So our prediction (like most of our predictions) turned out to be very conservative.

This is not the first instance of gross misreporting by the New York Times, and other mainstream media news outlets on the student loan issue. Last month, the mainstream media was flooded by the same story: that the overwhelming majority of student loan borrowers who filed for bankruptcy were getting discharges on their student loans. This is completely, and utterly false. In fact, the truth is that in the past year, only a vanishingly small fraction of people with student loans who filed for bankruptcy received even partial discharges on their loans.

The mainstream media is quickly losing its credibility with the public, and these two examples of media misreporting- including and especially stories that are seeded in the media by federal agencies like the Department of Education- illustrate exactly why the public no longer trusts- and shouldn’t trust- their journalism to tell the real story.



Alan Collinge

I am Founder of StudentLoanJustice.Org, author of The Student Loan Scam (Beacon Press), and creator of the petition Change.Org/CancelStudentLoans