WASHINGTON — As the first in her immigrant family to attend college, Lucia DiPoi said she had few clues about financing her college education. So when financial aid and low-interest government loans did not stretch far enough, Ms. DiPoi applied for $49,000 in private loans, too. “How bad could it be?” she recalls thinking.
When Ms. DiPoi graduated from Tufts University in Boston, she found out. With interest, her private loans had reached $65,000 and she owed an additional $19,000 in federal loans. Her monthly tab is $900, with interest rates topping 13 percent on the private loans.
Ms. DiPoi, now 24, quickly gave up her dream to work in an overseas refugee camp. The pay, she said, “would have been enough for me but not for Sallie Mae,” her lender.
The regulations that the federal Education Department proposed this month to crack down on payments by lenders to universities and their officials were designed to end conflicts of interest that could point students to particular lenders.
But they do nothing to address a problem that many education officials say may have greater consequences — more students relying on private loans, which are so unregulated that Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo of New York recently called them the Wild West of lending.
As college tuition has soared past the stagnant limits on federal aid, private loans have become the fastest-growing sector of the student finance market, more than tripling over five years to $17.3 billion in the 2005-06 school year, according to the College Board.
Unlike federal loans, whose interest rates are capped by law — now at 6.8 percent — these loans carry variable rates that can reach 20 percent, like credit cards. Mr. Cuomo and Congress are now investigating how lenders set those rates.
And while federal loans come with safeguards against students’ overextending themselves, private loans have no such limits. Students are piling up debts as high as $100,000.
Banks and lenders face negligible risk from allowing students to take out large sums. In the federal overhaul of the bankruptcy law in 2005, lenders won a provision that makes it virtually impossible to discharge private student loans in bankruptcy. Previously such provisions had only applied to federal loans, as a way to protect the taxpayer against defaulting by students. . . .