Nearly half of black Americans who borrowed from the federal government to attend college defaulted on their student loans, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Education.

The figures are part of a comprehensive report out this month that examines students who first enrolled in college during the 2003-04 academic year and whether they defaulted on at least one federal loan over the next 12 years, or until June 2015.

Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University who researches higher education, compiled default rates by race and provided it to Bloomberg.

The differences are stark: Some 48.6 percent of black student debtors defaulted on a federal loan, compared with 10.8 percent of Asians, 20.4 percent of whites, and 34.7 percent of Hispanics. Across all races, about 27 percent of all borrowers defaulted.

Nearly two-thirds of black students who took out loans to attend for-profit colleges, or 65.7 percent, ended up in default, data show. But the racial disparity was particularly dramatic for those who attended nonprofit four-year colleges: They were four times as likely as their white peers to default on their loans.

Many of these students likely left school in the heart of the Great Recession, when jobs were harder to come by and raises minimal. (Recent graduates who enter the workforce during recessions tend to suffer the consequences in the form of lower pay years later, research shows.) And a large share of them are probably in their early 30s now, which should be a peak homebuying age.

But defaults can haunt borrowers for years, damaging their credit and preventing them from getting mortgages and even apartments or jobs. "A student loan default, which is unhappily common, means that borrowing to buy a home is essentially impossible," Federal Reserve Bank of New York President William Dudley said last week.

For years, policymakers from both parties have been pushing for more Americans to get a college degree; two years ago, President Barack Obama called it the "surest ticket to the middle class." But while it pays off for the typical student, Education Department figures suggest seeking it leaves many worse off. Student loans, Dudley said, "can have the perverse effect of limiting social mobility."

Racial inequality probably plays a role: The typical white household led by someone without a bachelor's degree is wealthier than the typical black household led by someone with at least a bachelor's degree, according to figures from the Federal Reserve's triennial Survey of Consumer Finances made public last month.

About 31 percent of black families in the U.S. have student loans, making them the racial group most likely to be in debt because of pursuing higher education.

Bloomberg News