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Lots of people are still way behind paying back student loans

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York is out with its quarterly charts on household debt and credit. Student loan balances are continuing to climb, which was expected; the total outstanding student loan balance has now hit $1.12 trillion.

The percentage of the debt that's 90 days delinquent or in default has dropped slightly, but only slightly:

chart on student loan delinquencies

Most other forms of consumer credit, such as credit cards and car loans, saw delinquencies rise as the economy worsened. But those delinquencies are now on their way down to pre-recession levels or even lower. Credit card debt delinquency is at its lowest point since at least 2003; auto loans and mortgage delinquencies haven't fully recovered yet, but they're much less bad than they used to be.

Student loan delinquencies, on the other hand, just kept climbing. The slight dip this quarter, to 10.9 percent from 11.8 percent in the third quarter of 2013, is a good sign, but the same thing happened last summer. It's too early to declare this good news.

Update: A footnote in the Fed report points out that this probably understates the delinquency rate pretty drastically. That's because about half of the outstanding student loan balance is in various states where it doesn't need to be repaid. Either borrowers are still in college, they've gone back to college or grad school, they're in the six-month payment-free grace period, or their loans are in deferment or forbearance for other reasons. If you count only the balance on which borrowers are supposed to be making payments but aren't, rather than the total loan portfolio, the delinquency rate could be as high as 20 percent.

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