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Over the past few decades, the cost of tuition, room, and board for undergraduate students has increased, making it more difficult for some students and families to afford the cost of college. While students have historically relied on federal loans and grants and family contributions to pay for college, a growing number have turned to private education loans to help them cover the cost. In 2007-08, private loan volume, including private sector and state sponsored loans, totaled $19 billion, up from $3 billion in 1997-98, according to the 2008 College Board report on student aid. Unlike federal loans, private education loans are not guaranteed by the federal government and are typically more costly for students than loans offered through federal programs. Despite their generally higher cost, about 26 percent of students who obtained private education loans in 2007-08 did not obtain Federal Stafford loans, and more than one-half of these students did not apply for Federal financial aid, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. In 2007-08, 14 percent of undergraduate students obtained private education loans, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, and the average private loan amount was $6,533. This letter discusses GAO's work under the mandated study in section 1122 of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (HEOA) directs the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to assess the impact of private lenders' use of nonindividual factors--factors other than the borrower's own credit worthiness, such as the cohort default rate or graduation rate of the school the student attends-- in making loan decisions. To address the issues raised in the mandate, GAO framed its study around three key questions: (1) What are the key characteristics of private education loan borrowers and the types of schools they attend?; (2) How do lenders use nonindividual factors--including cohort default rate, graduation rate, and accreditation--in making lending decisions for private education loans?; and (3) What is the impact of using these factors on loan products and rates students pay and their access to loans, by gender, race, income, and institution type?

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