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If you want your kids to attend college, be aware of a hazardous type of loan that could prevent your retirement and leave you strapped to a lifetime of debt.

We're talking about parent PLUS loans. These fixed-rate loans are offered through the federal government to parents of dependent undergraduates. But if you can't pay back what you owe, your tax refunds could be seized and your wages garnisheed. You could even lose a chunk of your Social Security checks, however meager they might be.

That's scary, but what's even scarier is that the same loans that pose these hazards also could be your best bet if you want your children to get college degrees.

Unlike federal student loans for undergraduates, there is no preset limit on parent PLUS loans. You can borrow up to the full cost of your child's education. (If your kid gets financial aid, the maximum is the full cost minus that aid.) You don't need pristine credit or any proof that you can pay the money back.

Which is part of the problem.

Pauline emailed me, hoping there was some kind of escape clause she'd missed after she and her husband borrowed more than $200,000 in parent PLUS loans for their two daughters' college educations. The two girls both had medical conditions that Pauline said prevented her from working and that cost them most of their savings.

Liz Weston

Liz Weston

"We were at a high income level when the loans were made," Pauline wrote, explaining that her husband's income was over $300,000 at the time. "After 25 years with his company, he lost his job as a vice president. I went back to work, but only make $35,000. His new position is $100,000."

Their income is still high by national standards, but not high enough to make much progress on their enormous debt. The daughters can't help -- both graduated from college, but one has a "not great" job and the other is unemployed.

"We are taking out of our savings, (about) $3,000 monthly to pay our bills in hopes of things getting better," Pauline wrote. "My husband handles the finances (and) says if we can get lower payments, it won't matter on the student loans, we still have to pay forever. . . . He isn't or can't think about retirement."

You don't need a high income to get over your head with parent PLUS loans. One in five parent PLUS borrowers took out a loan for a student who received a Pell Grant, according to an analysis by financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb. Pell Grants are reserved for the neediest students, typically those from families who earn $50,000 or less.

Kantrowitz's analysis of 2007-08 Department of Education data, the latest available, also found that monthly payments for PLUS loans ate up an average 38% of borrowers' income among those in the bottom 10% of incomes.

"Either these parents don't know what they are getting into," Kantrowitz said, "or they expect their children to make the payments on the loans."

Kantrowitz's findings were included in a joint investigation by ProPublica and The Chronicle of Higher Education of parent PLUS loans that found many families have overburdened themselves with this debt. The investigation highlighted one single mom whose modest $25,000 income wasn't a barrier to getting $17,000 in loans for her daughter's education -- a debt that 12 years later has more than doubled, thanks to accumulated interest and fees.

The nominal interest rate of 7.9%, while relatively low for a loan that's not secured by property, is high enough that the amount owed can double within a decade if no payments are made. (There's also a 4% "loan origination fee" that's deducted from each loan disbursement.)

The federal government doesn't check incomes or employment status before approving these loans. The government also doesn't inquire about your other debts or your debt-to-income ratio. PLUS borrowers can't have an "adverse credit history," which means being currently 90 days or more late on a bill or having a bankruptcy, foreclosure or repossession within the previous five years.

"In effect, the PLUS loan credit underwriting is looking for signs that the prospective borrower is struggling to repay current debts," Kantrowitz said. "It does not evaluate whether the borrower can afford to make the payments on the new PLUS loan debt."

The government has powers that other debt collectors envy, such as the ability to:

  • Seize tax refunds.
  • Garnishee wages without a court order.
  • Grab a portion of Social Security benefits, which are usually off-limits to collection agencies.
  • Pursue the debt indefinitely, since there is no statute of limitations on student loan collection, as there is with most other debt.

You also could lose the professional or vocational license that allows you to work, since several states allow licensing boards to deny, suspend or revoke such credentials for people who default on student loans.

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