Chapel Hill, N.C. — When the economy took a downturn in 2008, more people headed back to school. With that, the number of people who are behind in payments on student loans is steadily on the rise again.
According to the U.S. Education Department, the national student loan default rate for fiscal year 2008 increased to 7.2 percent, compared with 6.7 percent in 2007 and 5.2 percent in 2006.
WRAL News found cases from nearly 30 years ago where the government is still trying to collect.
A doctor who borrowed $28,000 in the 1980s now owes $132,000 in interest and penalties, according to one federal court case. Another borrower started with $69,000 in loans in the 1990s, and the debt is now $98,000.
Wake Technical Community College student Jason Rhodes is one of the many students who are trying to manage that debt while he's still in school.
His degree in bakery and pastry arts marks his second go-round in college. He first attended East Carolina University and studied pre-med. He then changed his major to art and got a job teaching art at a private school, but he was laid off.
“(I) decided to take the opportunity to go back to school,” said Rhodes, who estimates that he’ll owe $15,000 to $20,000 by the time he leaves Wake Tech.
Rhodes said he has a work-study job, is paying on his loans every month and is avoiding the urge to borrow more.
Credit counselor Rebekah O'Connell says even bankruptcy isn't an escape.
“The debt doesn’t really go away,” she said. “If you don’t (pay), you’re at their mercy. They will keep your tax refund. They will garnish your wages.”
For that reason, financial aid applicants at Wake Tech are encouraged to take a financial literacy class online.
North Carolina is in better shape than many states across the country and has one of the lowest default rates in the country.