With computer glitches solved, the Alaska student loan program will now report delinquent borrowers to credit bureaus. Already, the program can garnishee wages and say ''I'll take that'' when the state cuts a Permanent Fund dividend check for a deadbeat.
The message is clear. Alaska takes the loans seriously. Pay them back.
There is no statute of limitations on these debts, no way to outlast them.
''We're still pursuing people who borrowed money in the late '70s,'' said Diane Barrans, executive director of the Alaska Commission on Postsecondary Education, which runs the program. ''There's a few of them.''
Ms. Barrans said that while the state intends to continue its insistence on repayment, loan officials are not cold-blooded. The average borrower taps the state for $13,000 to $15,000. That's a lot of debt to drag out of school. The state understands that borrowers often struggle to make monthly payments. What to do?
''Communication is key with us,'' Ms. Barrans said.
Rather than duck and run, a borrower should let the state know as soon as he or she sees problems ahead.
Repayments can be deferred for up to a year for continued schooling, medical conditions or unemployment. Borrowers have a right to certain deferments -- as long as they don't default. That means getting 180 days behind on a loan.
Repayments can be deferred for up to six months for catastrophes like a home fire.
Repayments can be extended for up to five years to make monthly payments more manageable. The normal repayment period is 15 years, at 8 percent interest. On a $14,000 loan that's $140 a month. On a $25,000 loan that's $250. Sometimes a lower monthly payment can keep a household afloat.
Ms. Barrans said good-faith efforts count. The state is willing to negotiate substantially reduced payments for short periods to let borrowers buy time.
About 23 percent of borrowers either are late with payments or in default. That's a high number, but Ms. Barrans makes two points.
One, only 11 percent of borrowers are in default this year. She said that number is down from 22 percent to 23 percent in the late 1980s.
Two, the flip side is that most borrowers value the loans and pay them back.
''The money we're responsible for is a commitment to the next generation of Alaskans,'' Ms. Barrans said. A program riddled with defaults likely will have less money available or much higher interest rates. Both mean a tougher time for future students.
Individuals have an obligation to repay their loans, to keep the promise they made when they borrowed the money. And individual Alaskans have a social obligation to keep the program healthy for those who follow them.
Default is an ugly state of being. The alternatives are better -- and they're available.
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