Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released data showing the share of borrowers at each institution of higher education that defaulted on student loans within three years of entering repayment. Most of the press coverage has focused on the 21 schools that exceeded the default rate set by Congress (30 percent for three consecutive years or 40 percent in any one year), and will likely be cut off from federal financial aid. These schools are the very worst of the worst, failing the default rate test even after some controversial fiddling with the numbers by the department.

But these absolute worst colleges make up only about 1,300 defaulting borrowers, about about two-tenths of 1 percent of the 7 million borrowers spread across 7,500 colleges and universities whose federal student loans are currently in default. Many of those millions of borrowers were unlucky enough to attend a school that welcomed the reliable stream of federal student aid dollars yet failed to help them obtain a valuable, worthwhile credential. Some of those schools claim their high default rates are simply a matter of demographics, that they serve the most at-risk populations, while advocates argue that rising debt numbers are driving student loan defaults. Yet despite little evidence to support that, almost none of these colleges have to worry about losing access to federal aid.

In many cases, the real reason that borrowers default on their loans is that they're the ones who didn't obtain any credential at all. With no degree to fall back on, finding a job that allows borrowers to repay their loans is no simple task.

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According to a New America Foundation analysis of the Department of Education's "Beginning Postsecondary Students" survey, of all students who began school in 2003-04 and were in default on their student loans six years later, the overwhelming majority — more than 60 percent — were students who left school with no degree. Of all the dropouts in the survey — defaulting or not — about one in four were unemployed as of 2009. That's twice the unemployment rate of students who obtained a bachelor's degree.

Of course, not all college graduates avoid default. But of completers who defaulted on their loans, nearly 88 percent earned just a certificate. That's nearly one in four of all those who obtained only a certificate within six years of starting school. People who earned a bachelor's or associate degree basically do not default, with just 3.5 percent ending up in this status.

Those challenges are undoubtedly driven, at least in part, by the fact that about one in three of all students who earned a certificate or degree and defaulted on their loans was unemployed at the end of the survey. And it hardly seems a coincidence that certificate programs are dominated by for-profit colleges marketing programs of questionable value.

Defaulting on student loans can come with serious implications for borrowers: frequent phone calls and letters harassing them for money, wage garnishment, the seizure of tax refunds, ruined credit, huge collection fees. For many students, the most important way to avoid those consequences may be sticking it out long enough to earn that degree. Yet in many cases, a short-term certificate program apparently won't cut it with employers.

While most stories about students in default revolve around borrowers overloaded with debt and unable to repay — questions of personal responsibility — the data tell a different story. Colleges that offer low-value certificate programs, or simply such a low-quality, minimally supportive academic experience that borrowers rarely stick it out, are doing the borrowers at their schools a disservice. Institutions need to take the initiative to help students navigate through school to graduation day, and to ensure they have a worthwhile degree that will help them launch successful careers.

McCann is a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Follow her @claremccann.