A report on student loan debt suggests that borrowing by people in graduate and professional degree programs is rising and could total a larger-than-expected portion of the nation’s $1 trillion in total outstanding federal student loans.

New America Foundation's Graduate Student Debt Review report, based on an analysis of recent U.S. Department of Education data, found that an estimated 40% of recent federal loan disbursements are for graduate student debt. The report reveals that debt for graduate students in various master’s and professional degree programs accounts for some of the most dramatic increases in borrowing between 2004 and 2012. The trend is not limited to high-cost programs such as medicine and law.

The report comes after the Department of Education recently proposed regulations to address mounting concerns about student loan debt by requiring for-profit career colleges to better prepare students for employment with a salary that will help them pay their loans.

Those regulations would require colleges to disclose information about the program costs, debt and performance of their programs in terms of future employment. Colleges, both for-profit and not, that do not follow the regulations will risk losing access to taxpayer-funded federal student aid and programs.

Students at for-profit colleges represent only an estimated 13% of the total higher education population but an estimated 31% of all student loans and nearly half of all loan defaults. In the most recent data, 22% of student borrowers at for-profit colleges defaulted on their loans within three years, according to the Department of Education.

According to New America Foundation's report, the median level of indebtedness for a borrower who earned a Master of Arts degree in 2004 was $38,000. In 2012, the amount was $59,000 with adjustments for inflation.

The report noted it "is meant to encourage policymakers, the media, students and others to start examining issues of college access, cost and student debt only after first distinguishing between graduate education and a more limited definition of college, a two-year or four-year postsecondary credential."

It notes that the research findings do not necessarily mean that students will pay more than their peers graduating a decade ago. Substantial new debt relief and assistance programs exist, in the form of the Income-Based Repayment Plan and Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which transfer large portions of graduate debt burdens from students to taxpayers. Still, according to the report, the net cost of graduate education in the economy has surged.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in February took its first public enforcement action against a for-profit college chain. The CFPB alleged in a lawsuit against ITT Educational Services Inc. that the for-profit college chain exploited its students and pushed them into high-cost private loans that were likely to end in default.

In some cases, according to the CFPB, students did not even realize they had a private student loan until they started getting collection calls. For borrowers with credit scores under 600, the costs of the private student loans included 10 percent origination fees and interest rates as high as 16.25 percent, the lawsuit alleges.

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