Students in Maine’s community colleges and private for-profit trade schools are more likely to default on their federal student loans than students at private nonprofit and public four-year state universities.

That’s according to the latest federal student loan default rates, released Wednesday by the Department of Education. The highest rates nationally are found at schools that enroll non-traditional students, or at schools located in areas with high local unemployment, where graduates have a harder time finding jobs.

In Maine, the 2011 default rate was 12.8 percent, or 2,301 borrowers in default out of 17,958 borrowers at 38 schools. That’s slightly lower than the national default rate of 13.7 percent – about 650,000 loans in default – which is down slightly from 14.7 percent in 2010. A loan is in default after at least nine months of nonpayment.

At any school, dropping out is the biggest factor linked to defaulting on student loans, said Mary Dyer, a financial aid specialist at the Finance Authority of Maine, which oversees a portion of the federal student loans in the state.

“The schools serving at-risk populations is where we see increases in the default rate. The key indicator is, do they graduate? That’s the most universal factor,” said Dyer. About 70 percent of default loans belong to students who dropped out, she said.

“If you solve the retention and graduation issue, you solve the default issue,” she said.

The finance authority oversees about 4,000 federal student loans in the state, serving students in public and private colleges, and has fewer than 300 loans in default, or a rate of about 7.1 percent, she said. FAME works closely with the borrowers, she said, to make sure they understand their options and obligations.

The highest default rate in Maine was 29.5 percent at Washington County Community College, followed by the University of Maine-Augusta at 22.7 percent. Of the state’s six private for-profit schools, which cater to specific trades, four have default rates in excess of 21 percent.

The largest private for-profit, Seacoast Career Schools with 1,458 students enrolled, had a default rate of 22.4 percent. It focuses on 900-hour programs to qualify graduates for medical trade jobs, such as billing or medical assistant work.

“At Seacoast, we tend to have a nontraditional student, older students with more financial commitments than a student fresh out of school,” said Chief Information Officer Michele Sinusas. The school counsels students about loans and repayment, but “when it comes time to pay their bills, people don’t always pay their student loans first,” she said.

Other trade schools with high default rates were Beal College, Mr. Bernard’s School of Hair Fashion and Spa Tech Institute.

Student loan debt is increasingly in the public eye, with lawmakers and activists drawing attention to the $1.2 trillion in student loan debt nationally, which is more than the nation’s total amount of credit card debt. In Augusta, a Commission to Study College Affordability and College Completion is developing a strategic plan for Maine’s colleges, due to be delivered Dec. 3.

“I didn’t really understand the scope of it,” said Jocylin Egan, a third-year nursing student at the University of Southern Maine who will owe about $55,000 in student loans when she graduates. “Then I plan to go back for my master’s (degree), so it could be as much as $100,000,” she said.

Egan said she’s already worried about making those payments.

“I get anxious about it,” she said. “It will just have to work into my monthly budget.”

University of Maine System officials said the default rate at the Augusta campus is higher than at the university system’s other campuses because it serves many non-traditional students, who are at higher risk of dropping out and defaulting. The rate at the flagship Orono campus is 6.3 percent, and it’s 6.8 percent at the second-largest campus, the University of Southern Maine.

Rosa Redonnett, chief student affairs officer for the system, said student aid officials work closely with students on all seven UMaine campuses to make sure they don’t go into default, but in the end, it’s up to the individual student.

“We do so much outreach … it’s 10, 20, 30 contacts with any one student,” she said.

The higher default rates at private for-profit colleges in Maine are mirrored nationally.

For-profit colleges enroll only 12 percent of all students, but account for 44 percent of the more than 650,000 defaulted loans nationwide. Community colleges enroll 37 percent, but account for only 24 percent of default loans. Public four-year colleges enroll 34 percent, and account for 20 percent of default loans. Private nonprofits enroll 17 percent and account for 11 percent of default loans.

The monetary value of the defaulted loans was not included in the data, meaning a single $75,000 loan in default at a high-tuition school could incur more unpaid debt than hundreds of lower-cost community college loans.

Schools with high default rates face sanctions, including loss of federal aid to colleges with default rates of 30 percent or more for three consecutive years, or 40 percent in a single year.

Federal officials note that at colleges with small enrollments, even a handful of default loans can result in a big increase in the school’s default rates. The higher default rates at Maine’s community colleges, which have the lowest tuitions, is not surprising since they admit virtually all applicants, Maine officials say.

“When you start with poorer students you’re more likely to have higher default rates. You are also more likely to have more students who fail and don’t make it through college,” said Scott Knapp, president of Central Maine Community College in Auburn. “Four-year institutions are selective. Our basic philosophy is that we want to give everyone a chance.”

Within Maine’s community college system, the default rates range from a low of 13.3 percent at Central Maine Community College to a high of 29.5 percent at Washington County Community College. But officials note that Washington County enrolls fewer than 600 students, and the actual number of defaulted loans is 26.

To tackle the problem, the state’s community college system and the university system have both contracted with a Massachusetts firm to keep students on track to pay their federal loans. The Salt program, run by Boston-based nonprofit American Student Assistance, provides financial education and multiple contacts with loan holders to help students avoid defaulting.

The lowest rates overall were mostly at private nonprofit schools, including Bowdoin, Bates and Colby colleges, even though those schools have some of the highest tuitions in the nation. Bowdoin’s default rate was 0.6 percent, Bates 1.4 percent and Colby 2.5 percent.

Several years ago, Bowdoin eliminated loans as part of its student financial aid package, but some of its students still need to take out private loans, officials said. Of the roughly 1,800 students there, about 850 are on financial aid, and about half of those students – about 400 – take out student loans, said Mike Bartini, director of student aid.

But the low default rate is a combination of factors, such as having a high graduation rate and retention rate, he said.

“These are responsible people,” Bartini said. “They understand that responsibility. The majority will find jobs and have the ability to pay off the loans.”

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