More people than ever are paying off their college debt in affordable monthly installments, following the expansion of a federal income-based repayment program aimed at lessening the stunting impact of the country’s growing student debt load.

There are indications, however, that the program is reaching the wrong people, providing a slight cushion to those who can most afford to pay while missing those can’t. It is yet another force making higher education less accessible to low-income Americans, and it is another sign that more needs to be done to cut the cost of a college diploma and make sure people who start college are able to finish.

Anyone with a federally subsidized direct loan can now cap their monthly payments at 10 percent of their discretionary income, and people are taking advantage. A new report from the White House found that 20 percent of all borrowers enrolled in a payment plan have capped their payments, up from 5 percent in 2012.

However, 64 percent of the people enrolled in the income-based repayment program have a college degree, and one-third have a graduate degree. These folks typically carry the highest debt loads, but thanks to their degrees, they are usually able to fit higher payments within their budgets, particularly as they get older.

That’s because a person with a college degree — from associate to advanced — can expect a high rate of return on their investment in higher education. The debt doesn’t feel good, but it’s not crippling — in fact, in a lot of cases, it’s part of the cost of doing business.

Unfortunately, many Americans get a portion of the debt and none of the return. They are predominantly low-income and often attend school part-time in an effort to improve their economic standing. That mindset was prevalent during the Great Recession, when so many people went back to school to acquire new skills.

Instead, when money ran out or family obligations got in the way, many were forced to drop out, leaving them with new bills to pay but no path to a better job. For people who enrolled in a for-profit university, this was a particularly common story.

That’s why student debt defaults are concentrated in low-volume loans. Individual debt loads of less than $10,000 account for nearly two-thirds of defaults; 35 percent of defaults are on debts less than $5,000.

That holds true in Maine, where 180,000 to 230,000 residents have attended some college but not earned a degree, and where between 70 percent and 90 percent of residents who have defaulted on loans never finished college, according to a 2014 report.

More often than not, people who take on loans but don’t graduate are stuck with debt and unable to get the right job to pay it off. They need income-based repayment more than anybody, but they are not signing up, perhaps because, after dropping out, they don’t receive repayment information that is provided upon graduation, a weakness that needs to be addressed.

But more than a better payment plan, they need to finish school, or to avoid that debt in the first place. They need to have the right information about which degrees to seek and at which institutions, so they don’t waste money.

And they need the kind of targeted support — financial, academic and familial — that helps low-income Americans go to college, and stay there through graduation.

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