NEW YORK -- Statistics for one quarter don't make a trend, but a drop in the rate of late payments for student loans in the last three months of 2009 may be a promising sign.

In its first publicly released examination of private student loan payment data, credit reporting agency TransUnion said the ratio of private student loans that were 90 days or more past due fell to 6.03 percent in the 2009 fourth quarter, reversing a five-quarter trend.

The fourth-quarter rate dropped from a 6.34 percent late-payment rate in the third quarter.

Compared with the rate of 5.4 percent in the 2008 fourth quarter, late payments jumped.

The ratio's ups and downs reflect what's going on with other consumer borrowing such as mortgages and credit cards, said Thomas Morrissey, manager of TransUnion's Analytic and Decisioning Services. Over the past few years, late payments for all three climbed sharply because of the spike in the unemployment rate at a time when households carried a lot of debt.

But the drop in the fourth quarter could mean positive news ahead, because consumers appear to be gaining control over their debt.

Fewer new private student loans made during the last two years and a higher number of co-signers on those loans are also likely to help reduce the overall delinquency rate this year, he said.

TransUnion's data shows the average debt per active private student loan account for the quarter was $17,754.