A new study on student loans offers more evidence of the financial squeeze facing recent college graduates. But nearly as striking is the company behind the study. TransUnion, one of the nation's largest consumer credit rating agencies, is among a growing number of organizations in the lending community looking closely at whether the growth in student debt is affecting the overall creditworthiness of a whole generation of borrowers.
"Thisis an emerging area of research," said TransUnion Vice President of Research and Consulting Ezra Becker in an interview.
While the new study does not draw any conclusions about the borrowers' creditworthiness, it does paint a grim picture of the college debt situation.
(Read More: Student-Loan Delinquencies Now Surpass Credit Cards)
TransUnion says it looked at all 300 million consumers in its database over the past five years, and found that as of last March 37.5 million had at least one student loan. That is up 35 percent from 2007, when 27.8 million consumers had student loans. The average student loan debt per borrower jumped to $23,829 in 2012 from $18,379 in 2007. That is a 30 percent increase. Reported student loan balances jumped 75 percent in the same period—"unprecedented growth," according to Becker.
The study also found more than half of student loans are in "deferment," where the borrower can temporarily delay making payments. Payments for certain types of student loans are automatically deferred while the borrower is still in school, but borrowers can also apply for deferment based on financial hardship. The difficulty comes when the deferment period—often three years—is up, and the borrower comes face to face with a dismal job market.
"Unemployment or underemployment among recent grads—people under 25—is around 50 percent,"Becker said, the highest rate in more than a decade.
The combination of high unemployment and rising debt is leading to a big jump in delinquencies for federally-backed student loans, according to the study.
Since 2007, delinquencies on the federal loans—which make up the vast majority of student debt—have jumped 27 percent. TransUnion says the delinquency rate of 12.31 percent is more than twice the 5.33 percent delinquency rate for home mortgages (delinquencies on private student loans, which are subject to stricter underwriting standards, have actually leveled off since 2007, and now stand at 5.15 percent). Delinquencies on credit cards are less than one percent.
Becker says the rising delinquencies on federal student loans do not necessarily mean delinquencies on other types of debt will follow, because borrowers tend to make payments on other loans—like auto loans and mortgages—ahead of their student loans, knowing the consequences of missing a payment are more immediate.
"You can't repossess an education," Becker said.
Still, experts are trying to determine the broader economic implications of the student debt situation.
TransUnion found roughly a third of student loan borrowers have "subprime" credit scores, up slightly from five years ago. But Becker says there are important differences between student debt and subprime mortgage debt. For one, student debt is a much smaller segment of the economy than the housing market. And since most student debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, the loans eventually will be repaid. He says that means it is unlikely the student loan situation will lead to an economic catastrophe the way the housing bubble did.
Less clear, however, is whether the rising student debt coupled with the sluggish job market will threaten the overall spending and borrowing power of the millions of consumers with student loans. So far, the evidence is inconclusive.
In September, FICO, which calculates credit scores for the major credit bureaus including TransUnion, issued a study that found rising student debt is not impacting credit scores—at least not yet. The study found 40 percent of borrowers with more than $50,000 in student debt have credit scores above 700 (the top score is 850).
That is not to say that falling behind on student loan payments cannot impact your credit score. Experts say it is crucially important to pay on time, especially for recent graduates who have little other credit history.