In finance, and in the world in general, few things move in a perfectly linear line. Markets and economies rise and recede. Demographic trends shift over time. Life itself is full of twists and turns.

The growth in U.S. student-loan debt, on the other hand, has been entirely predictable for the past 17 years, rising to $1.5 trillion:

Charts simply don’t get much more linear than that. This trend, of course, has fueled a national debate about student loans and is why Democratic candidates for president such as Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders have made college-debt forgiveness a pillar of their economic platforms. The costs of young Americans saddled with onerous debt burdens are well-chronicled: declining homeownership rates, dwindling small businesses, delaying marriage and putting off having children.

This is not the whole picture, however. Even though the growth looks perfectly linear, the reason for it began to change almost a decade ago.

The amount of new student-loan borrowing has declined 8% since peaking at $115 billion in 2012, including a sharp 24% reduction among undergraduate students, Moody’s Investors Service said in a report released late last week. From 2010 to 2018, the undergraduate population fell by more than 1 million, according to the credit rater, for mostly good reasons. Community college enrollment is down because the U.S. economy is strong, while for-profit institutions have come under closer scrutiny. Those who do still borrow, Moody’s says, have “greater potential for increased earnings.”

What, then, explains the ever-higher debt load? Simple: Borrowers aren’t repaying what they owe. Or, at least, not nearly with the expected urgency.

Any way you slice the data, this trend is staggering. Consider borrowers who were in school during the financial crisis (repayment obligations that started in 2010-12). About half of them made no progress in reducing their balance after five years, according to Moody’s. That aligns with a Federal Reserve Bank of New York report in October, which found a mere 36% of borrowers who were current in their loans in the second quarter made a dent in their balance over the previous year. Overall, during the past decade, the existing balance eliminated each year has averaged just 3%.

That’s obviously a tiny percentage, lower than the current fixed interest rates on federal loans of 4.53% for undergraduates and 6.08% for those attending graduate school. So borrowers as a whole aren’t even treading water.

That’s not the end of the story, though. Because part of the reason the repayment rate is so low is intentional.

Many college graduates are using income-driven repayment options, which grew in popularity after the financial crisis as a way to help people manage their student-loan debt. In general, they cap required monthly payments based on a percentage of discretionary income, a boon for those who don’t have high-paying jobs. Four of the five programs cited by Moody’s include outright debt forgiveness after 20 to 25 years of qualified payments.

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