CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Nearly a quarter of students attending community and technical colleges in West Virginia are not repaying their federal loans, according to new data.
That is well above the state and national default rates for students at public or private four-year colleges or for-profit institutions.
Representatives from West Virginia community and technical colleges said several factors contribute to this high default rate: the nature of the student population, lack of financial aid education, crippling debt from other college experiences and students trying to game the system.
Using a new, more expansive system for tracking default rates, data released Friday by the U.S. Department of Education shows a 24.6 percent rate for community and technical college students in West Virginia.
Students typically drawn to such schools face a wide array of financial problems, said Stephen Benson, vice president for finance and administration at New River Technical College.
Many have full-time jobs, they're not fresh out of high school or they have families.
Many have tried to earn a degree before. They might bring credits from that experience, but Benson said they usually bring debt as well. He pointed to students recently transferring to New River from the troubled Mountain State University.
"We've had students come to us who have attended there . . . they've been attending there for multiple years; they come to us with $30,000 debt and no degree," Benson said.
Janet Fike, vice president of student services and director of financial aid at West Virginia Northern Community College, agreed. She said a student's cumulative debt can become overwhelming.
About 83 percent of students attending Fike's school needed financial aid last year.
The more money going to a school's students, the greater the chance some students will default.
To continue receiving federal aid, students must meet certain grade and course completion standards. If a student receiving aid slips below these marks, aid can be suspended or eventually canceled, said Brian Weingart, senior director of financial aid for the state Higher Education Policy Commission.
Although the measure is aimed at preventing failing students from receiving more federal money, Fike said it also greatly affects a student's chances of eventually paying back debt already accrued.
"If students don't graduate and go out and don't have a job, they're not able to make the payments," Fike said.
Some students are just looking to make a quick buck.
Fike, Benson and others said community and technical colleges must watch out for students who apply to school solely to receive financial aid.
"They may attend one class, get their financial aid refund check and never come back," Benson said.
This might have led to higher default rates at community and technical colleges in the past. Now many schools have tied attendance to financial aid requirements.
West Virginia University at Parkersburg requires students to earn a 2.0 grade point average and complete 75 percent of the courses they register for to receive aid, Anthony Underwood, dean of students services, said in an email. Students must attend class regularly for one month before they receive a check, he added
"We want students to succeed," Katie Wootton, a college spokesperson, wrote in an email. "If they aren't coming to class, they are less likely to complete their certificate or degree program, which makes it more difficult for them to pay back their student loans."
More is being done to educate students about the risks of borrowing and to help cut down the amount borrowed. That means limiting available financial aid, but also reducing the budget used to "calculate the cost of attendance," Benson said.
"We've lowered those limits for what we will award to students, just to be very responsible to the students and not graduate them with high financial aid debt," Benson said.
The new guidelines move to a three-year window in measuring the number of students who default, compared to the previous two-year model. As such, the current rates reflect students who started repaying loans between October 2008 and September 2009 and had defaulted by September 2011, according to the department.