It’s borrowers with the smallest balances that are most likely to default on their student loans.
College dropouts are more likely to default.
… One likely explanation, offered by the New York Fed researchers, is that many Americans with small loan balances are dropouts. They may have attended school for a semester or two without getting a degree. They often don’t end up with the decent-paying job that a college education is supposed to bring, and thus lack the income to repay their debt.
Another possibility is that low-balance borrowers attained credentials such as certificates that don’t lead to the kind of jobs and salaries that a bachelor’s degree does.
A larger loan balance usually indicates a graduate degree, a credential that generally correlates with a higher salary.
By contrast, many borrowers with large loan balances are people who graduated from master’s programs and professional schools—doctors, lawyers—who typically end up with generous salaries. (We said typical, not always. There are plenty of struggling lawyers.)
High earners disproportionately take advantage of income-based repayment programs that shift part of their loan burden to taxpayers.
So while they have the biggest debts, they’re getting the actual returns on their investment and thus are in position to repay their loans. They also may be the most likely to enroll in income-based repayment programs, which many academics say disproportionately benefit high earners.