A growing number of students at Massachusetts community colleges are borrowing money to pay for school, and in recent years an increasing percentage have defaulted on their loans, a Globe review has found.
More than 25 percent of new full-time students at two-year colleges borrowed money to pay for school in 2012-2013, according to the most recent federal data available. That compares with 19.7 percent of beginning full-time students who took out loans five years earlier.
Those students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, defaulted on their loans at rates much higher than students at the state’s four-year public and private schools, according to federal statistics.
Default rates at community colleges rose over the latest three-year period from a statewide average of 14 percent to 16.4 percent, data show. The average loan was $4,000 per year.
Community colleges are the state’s most affordable colleges, and most students overcome significant hurdles to attend school. Many depend on loans to afford food, rent, and other basic costs while they take classes, especially those who care for children or parents or who must cut work hours to make time for school.
Graduating with debt can leave students in a deeper hole as they enter the job market. Still worse, if they drop out, as many do, they are saddled with debt — and no degree.
Counselors at the state’s 15 community colleges, from the Berkshires to Boston, alarmed by the default rates, are doubling down on efforts to help students manage or avoid debt altogether. Many students don’t understand the risk involved in borrowing, and the burden it can impose on their lives, counselors say.
“When they’re struggling with trying to get the rent paid, and food, and put gas in the car, it’s hard to make a wise borrowing decision,” said Susan Sullivan, director of financial aid at North Shore Community College in Danvers.
The double-digit default rates at Massachusetts community colleges are, for the most part, lower than the national average for community colleges, which is 20.6 percent. The national average for four-year schools is 13.7. Harvard University’s default rate has risen but stands now at 1.9 percent.
Overall, fewer community college students take out loans than do students at four-year schools, and they leave with less debt. For example, at Massasoit Community College in Canton just 30 percent of 2014 graduates borrowed, and they left school with an average debt of $8,731, according to the college. The national average debt for students leaving four-year schools is $30,000.
Students are considered in default if they fail to make payments for nine months. A default can damage their credit score and cause other headaches.
Julie Bauer, a 33-year-old single mother in Somerville who is working toward an associate’s degree in psychology at Bunker Hill Community College, said she took out $3,500 in loans the past two years to pay for her $1,200 monthly rent and other expenses. On top of school, she works and takes care of her 8-year-old son.
Bauer rides a bicycle for transportation, she said, after selling her car because it was too costly.
“If I take out this loan, it gives me a boost every semester, and I pay off bills,” said Bauer, who also worked a $10-an-hour work-study job last school year. She hopes to transfer to a four-year college.
Financial aid counselors like the ones Bauer works with watch default rates like hawks. David Allen, dean of financial aid at Bristol Community College in Fall River, said he has warned students about the perils of loans. Springfield Technical Community College has dedicated one counselor full time to help students make smart decisions about loans.
The number of borrowers at Bristol last year decreased by 96 students, Allen said.
A much larger number of students, not captured by federal data, are not in default but are behind on payments, said Paul Combe, president and chief executive of American Student Assistance, a Boston-based nonprofit that specializes in helping students with debt.
There could be light at the end of this dark tunnel, however.
New data are set to come out this fall, and an early version of those numbers indicates default levels are dropping, a trend counselors attribute to their hard work dissuading students from borrowing. (The most recent data available are for students who started repayment in 2011 and defaulted either that year or in 2012 or 2013.)
Another trend reflected by federal data is an increase in the number of Massachusetts community college students receiving federal Pell grants, which do not need to be repaid and are reserved for the neediest students.
The maximum amount for a Pell grant next year will be $5,775, which at most community colleges is just enough to cover annual tuition and fees for a full-time student.
Counselors say awareness of the grants has heightened among students, and the number of poor students who qualify has increased.
In recent interviews, students said they use Pell grants to pay tuition but need a loan to cover daily expenses.
“Students are having to now look to loans to make up for the cost of books, computers,” said Linda Desjardins, director of financial aid at Greenfield Community College.
Several other state scholarships are available to help students, but counselors said those run out quickly. While state financial aid has not decreased, it has not kept up with cost of attendance.
One state aid program for needy students, MassGrant, covered 80 percent of tuition and mandatory fees at all public colleges in 1988, but in 2013 it covered only 8 percent.
State funding for the colleges has grown modestly, even as the schools saw a dramatic enrollment surge during the recession. About 97,000 students attended Massachusetts community colleges in the fall of last year, compared with 80,500 in 2005.
Meanwhile, the cost of tuition and mandatory fees has risen between 39 and 82 percent in the past decade, according to state data. The average community college tuition for a full-time, in-state student is $5,300. For many students, even an increase of a few hundred dollars can deter them from enrolling.
Some states are trying different strategies to make community college more affordable. Oregon and Michigan are exploring a “pay it forward” plan, which calls for free tuition but requires students to pay a fixed percentage of their income after graduating to fund current students for 10 or 20 years.
Alina Pacheco, 21, of Randolph, said she was able to complete her associate’s degree this winter at Bunker Hill without taking out loans, but she will have to borrow to finish her degree at Bridgewater State University, which she started this spring.
It’s daunting, she said, thinking about whether she’ll be able to pay them back. “Hopefully it’s worth it,” she said.