No fewer than 20% of student loan borrowers who took out loans to fund their education are behind on their payments, according to the Federal Reserve's most recent data. Alarmingly, this rate has increased over the past few years, despite the generally strong U.S. economy.

With that in mind, here's a rundown of who is delinquent on their student loans, and what you can do if you've fallen behind.

A money bag and stacks of coins with a graduation cap on top.

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Who is behind on their payments?

According to the Federal Reserve's 2018 report on the economic well-being of U.S. households, 20% of student loan borrowers were behind on their payments in 2017, a percentage that rose from 18% in 2015.

One key point is that there's a big difference among different degree completion categories. Specifically, the further a borrower went in their education, the less likely they were to be delinquent on their loan payments:

Highest Level of Education Completed

Delinquency Rate

Less than an associate degree

More than 37%

Associate degree


Bachelor's degree


Graduate degree


Data source: Federal Reserve (2018-2019). 

There's also a big difference in delinquency rates based on loan balances, but it's probably not what you think. It may seem counterintuitive, but borrowers with the most debt are the least likely to be behind on their payments: 18% of borrowers with less than $10,000 in student debt are delinquent, compared with 22% of borrowers with $10,000 to $25,000 in debt and just 16% of borrowers with $100,000 or more.

Although this may seem strange, think about it in the context of levels of education. Borrowers with big student loan balances are more likely to have attained advanced degrees (and well-paying jobs), while borrowers with relatively small balances are most likely to have left school before finishing their degrees.

What to do if you need to catch up

If you're behind on your student loan payments and you want to catch up, there are a few things you can do. And you might be surprised how easy and inexpensive it is to take your account from a delinquent status to current -- especially if you have federal student loans.

The first step is to call your loan servicer to discuss your options. Even if you have private student loans, your lender may have some sort of forbearance program designed to help borrowers in times of financial hardship.

If you have federal student loans, you might be able to qualify for either deferment or forbearance. You can defer your federal student loan for up to three years. Deferments are fairly easy to obtain if you're unemployed, can't find full-time work, or are generally experiencing a financial hardship. 

If you've already exhausted your three years of deferment eligibility, you may be able to get a forbearance instead. The difference between deferment and forbearance -- and the reason that deferring is preferable -- is that if you defer a subsidized federal student loan, you also defer the interest. If a loan is in forbearance, you will not have to make monthly payments but the interest will continue to accrue.

As long as you are just behind on your student loan payments but aren't already in default on your student loans (which typically means that you're nine months behind or more), one of these should be an option. Both allow you to temporarily suspend your monthly loan payments and so take your loan to a status that's far better than "delinquent."

Once you've done damage control, it might be a smart idea to look into an income-driven repayment plan for your federal student loans. These cap your student loan payments at a certain percentage (10% or 15%) of your discretionary income. If you don't have any discretionary income, your payment can even be $0. If you're experiencing a financial hardship, this means your loan could possibly be "paid as agreed," even if you aren't paying anything at all.

The worst thing you can do if you're behind on your student loan payments

There's certainly a massive burden of student loan debt in the United States, but one good thing about this kind of debt is that lenders (private and federal) tend to be far more willing to work with borrowers in tough times than they do with other types of debt. Student loan delinquencies are harmful to your credit, and can therefore make it more expensive and difficult to get a mortgage or auto loan.

To wrap it up, the absolute worst thing you can do if you've fallen behind on your student loan payments is to ignore the problem. As we've seen, you may be able to suspend your payments or get a dramatically lower monthly obligation with minimal effort. So there's no good reason not to call your servicer and see what can be done.