The Latest College Scorecard Is Out. Here’s What It Says About How Much Parents Borrow for Higher Ed.

Amid a chorus of calls to cancel student debt, the U.S. Department of Education released new data on Wednesday that, for the first time, provides a look at the debt parents shoulder to pay for their children to go to college.

The bottom line about borrowers in the federal parent PLUS loan program: They’re taking out loans whose size could upend their finances.

A Chronicle analysis of the data shows that at nearly 130 four-year institutions awarding mainly bachelor’s degrees, the median amount parents borrowed was $50,000 or higher; those students attended mostly small private colleges. At the top of the list was Spelman College — for which parents of graduates borrowed a median $112,127. Dozens of public, private nonprofit, and for-profit art and music institutions, along with other liberal-arts colleges, followed at the top of list.

Parents who took out loans of $50,000 and above had monthly payments between $537 and — for the Spelman borrowers — $1,205 a month, the data show.

The data reflect the loans parents received through the PLUS program on behalf of undergraduate students who earned their degrees in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years.

The College Scorecard is a website designed to give prospective students and their parents information about how much debt students at individual institutions incur, and how much they would earn in certain fields after graduating, among other things. The addition of the PLUS-loans data to the scorecard is meant to provide a “more complete financial picture of how recent graduates have paid for their postsecondary education,” the department said in a statement.

According to the most recent federal data, 3.5 million parents nationwide have used the PLUS program to pay for their children to go to college.

Here are three takeaways from the data about what it means to be a PLUS-loan borrower:

Smaller private institutions — including historically Black colleges and universities — tend to have some of the highest shares of parents who take on PLUS loans to finance their children’s education.

Among four-year colleges generally, a high level of PLUS-loan participation was about 15 percent or 20 percent. But some Black colleges had at least twice that share, the analysis found.

At Clark Atlanta University, for example, an estimated 55 percent of parents took out PLUS loans, according to the data, as did about half of parents of graduates of Spelman College and Hampton University.

Meanwhile, at small, private liberal-arts institutions, like Ferrum College, in Virginia, and Wesley College, in Delaware, 40 percent of parents took out PLUS loans. The median loan amount for both colleges was nearly $35,000. Thirty percent of parents of recent graduates of Georgetown College, in Kentucky, and Monmouth College, in Illinois, tapped into a PLUS loan at a median of about $23,000.

Parents borrow large sums of money for children who ultimately drop out.

Sometimes the path to college graduation doesn’t pan out, but the PLUS-loan payments that parents have to make don’t disappear. The analysis found that at public and private institutions, most parents of students who dropped out owed more than $10,000.

The amount of debt taken on by low-income borrowers to attend for-profit colleges was wide ranging.

Parents of for-profit-college graduates who received a Pell Grant had median loans as high as $73,000 at DigiPen Institute of Technology, in Redmond, Wash., and as low as $4,500 at National University College, in Puerto Rico. Parents of graduates of the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, had median loans of nearly $66,000; the median loan for the Neumont College of Computer Science, in Salt Lake City, topped $50,000.

On the other end of the spectrum were 13 institutions where parents’ median loans were less than $10,000.

The largest share of loans in the for-profit sector fell between $10,000 and $41,000.

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