A Poor Way to Tie the Pell Grant to Performance

“Groan” is a word that is typically used to describe something that is unpleasant or bad. But in the language of student financial aid, “groan” has a second meaning—a grant that converts to a loan if students fail to meet certain criteria. The federal TEACH Grant to prospective teachers and New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program both have these clawback requirements, and a 2015 GAO report estimated that one-third of TEACH Grants had already converted into loans for students who did not teach in high-need subjects in low-income schools for four years.

Republican Reps. Francis Rooney (FL) and Ralph Norman (SC) propose turning the Pell Grant into a groan program through their Pell for Performance Act, which would turn Pell Grants into unsubsidized loans if students fail to graduate within six years. While I understand the representatives’ concerns about students not graduating (and thus reducing—but not eliminating—the return on investment to taxpayers), I see this bill as a negative for students and taxpayers alike.

Setting aside the merits of the idea for a minute, I’m deeply skeptical that the Department of Education and student loan servicers can accurately manage such a program. With a fair amount of difficulty managing TEACH Grants and income-driven repayment plans, I would expect a sizable number of students to incorrectly have Pell Grants convert to loans (and vice versa). I appreciate these two representatives’ faith in Federal Student Aid and servicers to get everything right, but that is a difficult ask.

Moving on to the merits of the idea, I am concerned about the implications of converting Pell Grants to a loan for students who left college because they got a job. Think about this for a minute—a community college student who has completed nearly all of her coursework gets a job offer with family-sustaining wages. She now faces a tough choice: forgo a good, solid job until she completes (and hope she can get another one) or take the job and owe an additional $10,000 to the federal government? If one of the purposes of higher education is to help students move up the economic ladder, this is a bad idea.

This could also have additional negative ramifications for students who stop out of college due to family issues, the need to support a family, or simply realizing that they weren’t college ready at the time. Asking a 30-year-old adult to repay additional student loans (when he may have left in good standing) under this groan program would probably reduce the number of working adults who go back and finish their education.

If the representatives’ concern is that students make very slow progress through college and waste taxpayer funds, a better option would be to gradually ramp up the current performance requirements for satisfactory academic progress. These requirements, which are typically defined as a 2.0 GPA and completing two-thirds of attempted credits, already trip up a significant share of students. But on the other hand, research by Doug Webber of Temple University and his colleagues finds significant economic benefits to students who barely keep a 2.0 GPA and are thus able to stay in college.

Finally, although I think this proposal is shortsighted, I have to chuckle at a take going around on social media noting that one of the representatives owns a construction company that helped build residence halls. Wouldn’t that induce a member of Congress to support policies that get more students into college (and create demand for his company’s services)? It seems like he is going against his best interest if this legislation scares students away from attending college.

Is There Evidence of the Bennett Hypothesis in Legal Education?

“If anything, increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase…Federal student aid policies do not cause college price inflation, but there is little doubt that they help make it possible.”

In what year was the above quote first printed in The New York Times? Given concerns about college affordability and the ever-rising price tag of a college education, it’s reasonable to assume that the quote comes from the last few years. Yet this quote came from William Bennett (who was President Reagan’s Secretary of Education) way back in 1987. Bennett is now a conservative commentator and occasional advisor to the Trump administration, and his higher education views likely get traction in key federal policy circles.

Since 1987, what came to be known as the Bennett Hypothesis has been vigorously debated in the research and policy communities. As I detailed in two previous blog posts, the evidence to support the Bennett Hypothesis is generally modest among undergraduate students—with stronger evidence at private nonprofit and for-profit colleges than community colleges. However, prior research often looks at small changes in student loan borrowing limits or Pell Grant award amounts since there have been no large-scale changes in financial aid for undergraduate students over the past several decades.

Many graduate and professional students, on the other hand, saw a large increase in their federal student loan limits in 2006 (from $18,500 per year up to the full cost of attendance) due to the creation of the Grad PLUS loan program. This increase, which could be in the tens of thousands of dollars for students, provides a rare opportunity to test how colleges responded to a large change in potential federal revenue. This is particularly salient for students in master’s and professional degree programs, as institutional financial aid is far less common than in PhD programs.

Thanks to support from the AccessLex Institute and the Association for Institutional Research, I have spent much of the last year examining whether professional programs responded to the creation of the Grad PLUS program and the following expansion of income-driven repayment programs by increasing tuition and fees and/or living allowances. I also looked at whether student debt burdens of graduates increased. Today, I am releasing a SSRN working paper examining these questions for law schools, with additional analyses for business and medical schools to come at some point in the future.

In the seven months of tedious data compilation, coding, and cleaning that preceded any analyses (a big thanks to my sharp research assistants Joe Fresco and Olga Komissarova for their hard work!), I fully expected to find a great deal of evidence to support the Bennett Hypothesis due to the entrepreneurial nature of law schools and the sheer amount of federal student loan dollars that became available in 2006. Yet as the graphics below show, there was no immediate smoking gun in the descriptive data (focus on the red line at 2006).

But because graphics do not prove that there is (or is not) a relationship between federal student loan availability and law schools’ prices, I used two analytic strategies to try to draw causal inferences. I used an interrupted time series model that compared law schools before and after the 2006 implementation of Grad PLUS and a difference-in-differences model that looked at the difference between law schools and undergraduate institutions before and after 2006. Both of these models showed generally null or small positive coefficients, suggesting that law schools did not react by raising tuition prices or living allowances by massive amounts. (These findings generally match the conclusions from the literature at the undergraduate level, and are robust across a range of model specifications.) Below are the coefficients for tuition and fees, with the coefficients for living allowances and debt burdens available in the paper.

So why was there far less evidence for the Bennett Hypothesis than I expected to see? I offer three potential explanations.

Explanation 1: Law schools didn’t strategically increase prices in response to increased federal financial aid availability. Yes, law school tuition is expensive, and it’s certainly true that colleges have viewed law schools as potential revenue centers. But law schools may have thought that their price increases were already substantial enough to fund their operations.

Explanation 2: Any law school that increased tuition by more than their competitors may have seen a decline in applicants and/or revenue. This is somewhat similar to the classic prisoner’s dilemma in game theory, in which cooperating with other players (to raise prices) would result in a better solution than going alone. But to collude here would be price fixing—and illegal. Thus law schools stick to the norm of sizable (but not absurd) tuition increases.

Explanation 3: Students shifted from private loans to PLUS loans and thus already had access for loans up to the full cost of attendance. There is some evidence to support this logic, as 36% of law students took out private loans in 2003-04 compared to just 5% in 2011-12. Yet this would not hold for the majority of students who didn’t take out private loans.

I would love to get your comments on this working paper before it undergoes the formal peer review process in a few weeks (it’s already been informally reviewed). Send me your thoughts!

New Data on Long-Term Student Loan Default Rates

In recent years, more data have come out on how well students are able to manage repaying their loans beyond the three-year window currently used for federal accountability purposes (via cohort default rates). A great 2015 paper by Adam Looney and Constantine Yannelis used tax records merged with data from the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS) to show longer-term trends in default in repayment. Two days later, the release of the College Scorecard provided college-level data on student loan repayment rates going out seven years (even though the repayment rates were initially calculated incorrectly).

Thanks to a lot of hard work by the data folks at the U.S. Department of Education and their contractor RTI, there are new data available on long-term student loan default rates. ED and RTI used NSLDS data going through 2015 to match records from the Beginning Postsecondary Students studies of cohorts beginning college in 1995-96 and 2003-04. This allowed a 20-year look at student loan default and payoff rates for the 1995-96 cohort and a 12-year look at the 2003-04 cohort, as detailed in this useful report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Thanks to NCES’s wonderful PowerStats tool, I took a look at the percentage of students in the 2003-04 entering cohort (my college cohort) who had defaulted on at least one of their federal student loans within 12 years. Many of the news headlines focused on the high default rates of students at for-profit colleges (about 52%!), but this isn’t entirely a fair comparison because for-profit colleges tend to serve more economically-disadvantaged students. So in this post, I focused on racial/ethnic differences in default rates by type of college attended to give a flavor of what the data can do.

As the below chart shows, nearly half of all black students (49%) defaulted on at least one loan within 12 years—more than twice the rate of white students (20%) and more than four times the rate of Asian students (11%). The differentials are still present across sector, with more than one-third of black students defaulting across all sectors while a relatively small percentage of Asian students defaulted across all nonprofit sectors. Default rates at for-profit colleges are high for all racial/ethnic groups, with almost half of white students defaulting alongside nearly two-thirds of black students.

An advantage of the PowerStats tool is that it allows users to run regressions via NCES’s remote server. This allows interested people to analyze the relationship between long-term default rates and attending a for-profit college after controlling for other characteristics. However, PowerStats is overwhelmed by requests by my fellow higher education data nerds at this point, so I gave up on trying to run the regression after several hours of waiting. But if someone wants to run some regressions using the new loan repayment data in the BPS once the server calms down, I’m happy to feature their work on my blog!

Examining Trends in Student Loan Repayment Rates

It’s been a good week for higher education data nerds. The Department of Education released updated student loan cohort default rates on Wednesday afternoon (see my summary here), followed by an update to the massive College Scorecard dataset on Thursday morning. This is the third update to the Scorecard, with this year’s update also featuring a nice new comparison tool on the student-facing version of the site.

In this post, I focus on trends in student loan repayment rates (defined as the percentage of students who have repaid at least $1 in principal) at various periods entering loan repayment. I present data for colleges with unique six-digit Federal Student Aid OPEID numbers (to eliminate duplicate results), weighting the final estimates to reflect the total number of borrowers entering repayment. Additionally, I use the January 2017 data release for the 2012-13 Scorecard data because there appears to be an error in that year’s dataset that results in very few colleges having loan repayment rates.

I begin by show the trends in the 1-year, 3-year, 5-year, and 7-year repayment rates for each cohort of students with available data.

Repayment cohort 1-year rate (pct) 3-year rate (pct) 5-year rate (pct) 7-year rate (pct)
2006-07 61.8 63.5 64.6 66.6
2007-08 53.0 54.2 56.1 59.7
2008-09 46.1 47.9 52.0 56.0
2009-10 41.0 43.2 48.7 N/A
2010-11 36.6 40.7 46.3 N/A
2011-12 32.2 38.1 N/A N/A
2012-13 33.0 38.3 N/A N/A

There are two clear trends from this table. First, repayment rates have steadily dropped for more recent cohorts of students. The one-year repayment rate for students entering repayment in 2006-07 (before the Great Recession) was 61.8%, while the most recent cohort of students had a one-year repayment rate of just 33.0%. Much of this decline is likely due to the growth of income-driven repayment plans (which can allow students to be current on their payments while not making a dent in the overall principal). But economic circumstances also likely play a role here.

Second, repayment rates steadily rise for a given cohort as they have more time in the labor market after college. In the 2008-09 repayment cohort, the seven-year repayment rate was 56.0%, 9.9% higher than the one-year rate. These trends still suggest that it will be a long time before students repay their loans, but this is a step in the right direction.

I also show the distribution of colleges’ repayment rates for the 2008-09 cohort across all of the repayment periods by the type of college (public, private nonprofit, and for-profit). In general, private nonprofit colleges have higher repayment rates than both public and for-profit colleges (in part because private nonprofit colleges are primarily four-year institutions), but all sectors see slight improvements between the one-year and seven-year repayment rates.

Finally, a programming note: I’ll be getting the final page proofs for my book shortly and have to do final checks and put together an index during the month of October. I’ll try to write a couple of short blog posts when the new National Postsecondary Student Aid Study and full IPEDS Outcomes Measures survey come out; otherwise, stay tuned for some exciting new research that I’ll be unveiling in early November.

It’s Time to Move Beyond Cohort Default Rates

Today marked the annual release of data on cohort default rates—representing the percentage of students at a given college who default on their federal student loans within three years. The newest data show that 11.5% of students who entered repayment in Fiscal Year 2014 defaulted during this period, which is up slightly from 11.3% for those who entered repayment in Fiscal Year 2013.

Cohort default rates (CDRs) have been used for decades as an accountability metric by the federal government, with colleges posting CDRs of over 40% in a given year losing access to federal student loans for a two-year period and colleges with CDRs above 30% in three consecutive years losing access to all federal financial aid for two years. This year, six colleges posted default rates high enough to lose all Title IV aid and four more had default rates high enough to lose loan access.

Yet CDRs suffer from two key concerns that make them almost toothless from an accountability perspective—and show the need for better accountability metrics. I discuss the two key points in brief below (and if you like this topic, you’ll love my book on higher education accountability that will come out in January!).

Point 1: Default rates are an almost meaningless indicator of student outcomes. The availability of income-driven repayment programs means that no student should ever default on their obligations (although these programs are still clunky and some students simply don’t ever want to repay their loans). But for students who are able and willing to jump through the hoops of income-driven programs and have very low incomes, they can be current on their loans while making zero payments. Many colleges also adopt default management programs that can encourage students to either enroll in income-driven plans or to defer their obligations beyond the three-year accountability window.

In a recent article (a summary is available here), Amy Li of the University of Northern Colorado and I explored the relationship between default and repayment rates (as defined as paying down at least $1 in principal over a given period of time). We showed that although reported default rates stayed low, the percentage of students failing to repay any principal—a key question for taxpayers—was far higher.

Point 2: Default rate sanctions affect almost no colleges. Ben Miller of the Center for American Progress summed up how few colleges faced the loss of federal aid:

The all-or-nothing nature of potential sanctions gives colleges a tremendous incentive to make sure they aren’t affected. In 2014, the Obama Department of Education agreed to a controversial last-minute change to CDRs that allowed some colleges to sneak just below the 30% threshold. In 2017, a provision appeared in the FY 2018 budget that would effectively void CDR sanctions for colleges in economically distressed areas:

It turns out that Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) inserted the provision, likely to help out Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College—one of the six institutions that is at risk of losing all federal financial aid due to high default rates. It pays to have friends in high places, I reckon.

So what can be done to improve federal accountability policies on student loans? I offer two simple ideas to start. First, move from default rates to repayment rates in order to get a better idea of students’ post-college circumstances. Second, move from an all-or-nothing sanction system to gradual sanctions. I go into both of these points in more depth in a paper I wrote in 2015 on the idea of “risk sharing” for student loans. It is essential to move away from CDRs as quickly as possible, even though some in higher education community may prefer the CDR system that affects relatively few colleges.

Examining Trends in the Pell Grant Program

The U.S. Department of Education recently released its annual report on the federal Pell Grant program, which provides detailed information about the program’s finances and who is receiving grants. The most recent report includes data from the 2015-16 academic year, and I summarize the data and trends over the last two decades in this annual post on the status of the Pell program. (Very preliminary data on Pell receipt for the first two quarters of the 2016-17 academic year can be found in the Title IV program volume reports on the Office of Federal Student Aid’s website.)

The number of Pell recipients fell for the fourth year in a row in 2015-16 to 7.66 million. This represents a 7.9% decline in the last year and an 18.9% drop since the peak in 2011-12. The decline is steepest in the for-profit sector (down 13.9% in one year and 36.7% since 2011-12) and among community colleges (down 13.3% and 28.3%, respectively), while private nonprofit and public four-year colleges stayed relatively constant. For the first time since at least 1993, more students at public four-year colleges received Pell Grants than community college students. While most of this change is likely due to a drop in community college enrollment, some could be due to community colleges offering a small number of bachelor’s degrees being counted as four-year colleges. (Thanks for Ben Miller of the Center for American Progress for pointing that out!)

Pell Grant expenditures fell to $28.6 billion in 2015-16, down from $35.7 billion in 2010-11. After adjusting for inflation, program expenditures are down 26% since the peak. This has allowed the Pell program to develop a surplus of $10.6 billion, $1.3 billion of which was taken to use for other programs in the 2017 budget deal. This surplus also allowed for the Pell Grant to be available for more than two semesters per year as of July 1, which was allowed between 2008 and 2011 before being cut due to budgetary concerns.

Most of the decline in Pell enrollment and expenditures can be attributed to a drop in the number of students who are considered independent for financial aid purposes (typically students who are at least 24 years of age, are married, or have a child). The number of independent Pell recipients fell by 28% in the last four years (to 4.05 million), while the number of dependent Pell recipients fell by just 6.4% (to 3.61 million), as shown in the chart below. However, independent students still make up the majority of Pell recipients, as they have every year since 1993.

There has been an even larger drop in the number of students with an automatic zero expected family contribution, who automatically qualify for the maximum Pell Grant based on family income and receiving means-tested benefits. (For more on these students, check out this article I wrote in the Journal of Student Financial Aid in 2015.) The number of independent students with dependents who received an automatic zero EFC fell by 50% since 2011-12, while the number of dependent students in this category fell by 29%. (Independent students without any dependents are not eligible to receive an automatic zero EFC.) Part of this decline was due to a decrease in the maximum income limit that automatically qualified students for an automatic zero EFC, while the rest can be attributed to an improving economy that has both induced adult students to return to the labor market and raised some incomes beyond the threshold for qualifying for an automatic zero EFC.

The Tangled Web of Student Debt Consolidation Companies

Like seemingly most American households, the Kelchens get far more junk in the mail than actual mail of value. We get about as many credit card applications as our shredder can handle, as well as folks trying to sell us a broad array of products and services. But letters that mention student loan debt and say “Final Notice” on them always get my attention, both as a researcher of higher education finance and as a proud part-owner of my wife’s law school debt.

The letter below came last week from a company called Direct Document Solutions out of Irvine, California. It says that we may be eligible to consolidate our existing federal student loan into a lower-interest federal loan—and that we may be eligible for loan forgiveness. While the fine print says that the company is fee-based and that they are not a part of the Department of Education, it’s in much smaller font than the rest of the letter.

After looking at this letter for a while, I realized that it looked vaguely like another student loan consolidation letter we had received several months prior. I dug through my Twitter media archives and found a nearly-identical letter (presented below) from last August from a company called Certified Document Center (which operates as Document Preparation Services at the same address as Direct Document Solutions). The Better Business Bureau gave the company a C rating, with 18 complaints in the last 12 months alone.

Just before I got the letter last week, NerdWallet put out a helpful list of about 130 companies that are less-than-ideal actors in the student debt consolidation business. To get on this list, companies needed to have faced significant complaints or have a D or F rating from the Better Business Bureau. So this means that Document Preparation Services sneaks over the bar and doesn’t make the list.

But in my research of this company, I discovered it was a part of the Association for Student Loan Relief—a group of 118 companies that specialize in student loan consolidation. A number of these companies show up on NerdWallet’s watch list. These companies tend to be clustered in certain areas—for example, nine are located in Irvine, California and quite a few are located in South Florida. This, along with the multiple aliases that several companies appear to have used, suggest the possibility that a number of these companies may be run by the same people or group of people.

People who are struggling to repay their federal loans (or are simply seeking a better deal) should probably start by talking with their current servicer or even reaching out to their former college’s financial aid office. If an income-driven repayment plan is the best choice, there is usually little need to involve a paid consolidation company. For students who are seeking a lower interest rate, there are legitimate companies (like Earnest and SoFi) and banks that will refinance student loans. Refinancing can be a great option for people who are certain that they won’t benefit from income-driven repayment plans and have fairly high incomes, but this is a decision that should be researched before making. Read reviews, look at BBB ratings (and the number of complaints), and be very skeptical when changing anything with your student loans.

No matter what you do, don’t put your student loans in the hands of some random company sending you “Final Notice” letters even though you have no relationship with them. That’s a great way to ruin your credit and empty your bank account.

Comments on the Trump Higher Education Budget Proposal

The Trump administration released its first full budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2018 today, and it is safe to say that it represents a sharp break from the Obama administration’s budget proposals. The proposed discretionary budget for the Department of Education is about $69 billion, $10 billion less than the Fiscal Year 2017 budget. Below, I offer brief comments on three of the key higher education proposals within the budget, as well as my take on whether the proposals are likely to be enacted in some form by a Republican-controlled Congress that seems fairly skeptical of the Trump administration’s higher education policy ideas.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness would no longer be available for new borrowers. Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) was first made available in 2007 in an effort to encourage individuals to work in lower-paying nonprofit or government jobs. This plan allows students enrolled in income-driven repayment plans who annually certified their income and employment status to have any remaining balances forgiven after ten years of payments of 10% of discretionary income. However, the plan has been criticized due to its likely high price tag to taxpayers and because it provides far larger subsidies to graduate students than undergraduate students.

The Trump administration’s budget proposal would end PSLF for new borrowers as of July 1, 2018—and require all people currently on PSLF to maintain continuous enrollment in the program to remain eligible. This is likely to be a difficult hurdle for many people to clear, as a large number of students have been tripped up by annual recertification in the past. I’m glad to see that the Trump administration didn’t completely end PSLF for current students (as people reasonably relied on the program to make important life choices), but otherwise saving PSLF in the current form isn’t at the top of my priority list because of how most of the subsidy goes to reasonably well-off people with graduate degrees instead of low-paid individuals with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.

Prognosis of happening: Low to medium. This will generate howls of outrage in The New York Times and The Washington Post from groups such as the American Bar Association and the National Education Association, but there is a reasonable argument for at least curtailing the amount of money that can be forgiven under PSLF. A full-fledged ending of the program may not happen, but some changes are quite possible as quite a few members of Congress are upset with rising costs of loan forgiveness programs.

Subsidized loans for undergraduates would be eliminated, and income-driven loan repayment periods would change. Undergraduate students can qualify for between $3,500 and $5,500 per year in subsidized student loans (meaning interest is not charged while they are in school), with the remainder of their federal loans being unsubsidized (with interest accumulating immediately). The Trump administration would end subsidized loans, with the likely rationale that the interest subsidy is not an efficient use of resources (something that is hard to empirically confirm or deny, but is quite plausible).

The federal government currently offers students a menu of income-driven loan repayment options, and the Trump administration proposed to simplify these into one option.  Undergraduates would pay up to 12.5% of the income over 15 years (from 10% over 20 years for the most popular current plan), while grad students would pay up to 12.5% for 30 years. Undergraduate students probably benefit from this change, while graduate students decidedly do not. This plan hits master’s degree programs hard, as any graduate debt would either trigger a 30-year repayment period for a potentially small amount of additional debt or push people back into a standard (non-income-driven) plan.

Prognosis of happening: Medium. There has been a great deal of support for streamlining income-driven repayment plans, but the much less-generous terms for graduate students (along with ending PSLF) would significantly affect graduate student enrollment. This will mobilize the higher education community against the proposal, particularly as many four-year colleges are seeking to grow graduate enrollment as a new revenue source. But potentially moving to a 20-year repayment period for graduate students or tying repayment length to loan debt are more politically feasible. The elimination of subsidized loans for undergraduates hits low-income students, but a more generous income-driven repayment program mainly offsets that and makes that change more realistic.

Federal work-study funds would be cut in half and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant would be eliminated. The federal government provides funds for these two programs to individual colleges instead of directly to students, and colleges are required to provide matching funds. The SEOG is an additional grant available to needy undergraduates at participating colleges, while federal work-study funds can go to undergraduate or graduate students with financial need. Together, these programs provide about $1.7 billion of funding each year, with funds disproportionately going to students at selective and expensive colleges due to an antiquated funding formula. Rather than fixing the formula, the Trump administration proposed to get rid of SEOG (as being duplicative of Pell) and halve work-study funding.

Prognosis of happening: Slim to none. Because funds disproportionately go to wealthier colleges (and go to colleges instead of students), the lobbying backlash against cutting these programs will be intense. (There is also research evidence showing that work-study funds do benefit students, which is important to note as well.) Congressional Republicans are likely to give up on changing these two programs in an effort to focus on higher-stakes changes to student loan programs.

In summary, the Trump administration is proposing some substantial changes to how students and colleges are funded. But don’t necessarily expect these changes to be implemented as proposed, even if there are plenty of concerns among conservatives about the price tag and inefficient targeting of current federal financial aid programs. It will be crucial to see the budget bill that will go up for a vote in the House of Representatives, as that is more likely to be passed into law than the president’s proposed budget.

A Look at Unmet Financial Need by Family Income

One of the perks of my job is that I get to talk with journalists around the country on a regular basis—it gives me the chance to keep up on what are the hot topics in the broader community as well as build connections with some wonderful people. I recently chatted with Jeff Selingo of The Washington Post for his latest column on whether college is affordable for middle-class families. My quote in the piece was, “They are getting squeezed on both ends because they barely miss Pell Grants and they are not the types of students getting grants from colleges themselves.”

Because I’m a data person at heart, I wanted to provide some supporting evidence for my claim. I used the most recent wave of the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study—a nationally representative study of first-time college students in the 2011-12 academic year—to look at financial need among new students at four-year colleges by family income quintile (for dependent students, who are mainly traditional-aged). The key column in the table below is unmet financial need, which is how much money students and their families have to come up with to cover the cost of attendance after grant aid and the expected family contribution (EFC)—a rough estimate of how much the government thinks families can contribute.

Quintile Unmet need EFC Total grants Parent income
Bottom $10,000 $0 $9,318 $13,150
Second $10,637 $557 $8,550 $34,238
Middle $9,912 $5,440 $5,550 $61,388
Fourth $4,820 $14,537 $2,750 $95,763
Top $0 $31,663 $2,000 $161,361

 

Source: NPSAS 2011-12.

Note: Values presented are medians and are only for dependent students attending four-year colleges.

The key point here is that families in the middle income quintile have to come with roughly the same amount of additional money beyond the EFC to pay for a year of college as families in the bottom two quintiles. Grant aid drops off substantially after the second quintile (where Pell eligibility starts to phase out), so middle-income families certainly do have reasons to be concerned about college affordability. Federal loans and PLUS or private loans can help to bridge the gap for students, but these figures do illustrate why student debt burdens (although relatively modest from a lifetime perspective) are a mounting concern for a larger percentage of undergraduate students.

Which Factors Affect Student Loan Repayment and Default Rates?

As student loan debt has surpassed $1.25 trillion, policymakers and members of the public are increasingly concerned about whether students are able to manage rising (but often still modest) loan burdens. The federal government has relied on a measure called cohort default rates—the percentage of former borrowers who defaulted on their loans within a few years of entering repayment—to deny federal financial aid access to colleges with a high percentage of struggling students. Yet default rates can be easily manipulated using strategies such as deferment and forbearance (which often don’t help students in the long run), meaning that default rates are a very weak measure of students’ post-college outcomes.

The 2015 release of the College Scorecard dataset included a new measure—student loan repayment rates, defined as the percentage of borrowers repaying any principal within a certain period of entering repayment. This gets at whether students are paying down their loans, which seems to be a more helpful indicator than relying heavily on default rates. But since repayment rates are a new measure, colleges had no incentive to manipulate repayment rates as they did default rates. This creates a research opportunity to examine whether colleges may have been acting strategically to lower default rates even as their students’ underlying financial situations did not change.

I teamed up with Amy Li, an assistant professor at the University of Northern Colorado, to examine whether the factors affecting loan repayment rates differ from those factors affecting default rates—and whether the factors affecting repayment rates varied based on the number of years after the student entered repayment. Our article on this topic is now out in the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, with a pre-publication version available on my personal website.

We used default and repayment data on students who entered repayment in fiscal years 2006 and 2007 so we could track repayment rates over time. Default rates at the time covered the same time period as the one-year repayment rate, while we also looked at repayment rates three, five, and seven years after entering repayment. (And we had to scramble to redo our analyses this January, as the Department of Education announced a coding error in their repayment rate data in the last week of the Obama Administration that significantly lowered loan repayment rates. If my blog post on the error was particularly scathing, trying to revise this paper during the journal editing process was why!) We then used regressions to see which institutional-level factors were associated with both default and non-repayment rates.

Our key findings were the following:

(1) Being a traditionally underrepresented student was a stronger predictor of non-repayment than default. Higher percentages of first-generation, independent, first-generation, or African-American students were much more strongly associated with not repaying loans than defaulting after controlling for other factors. This suggests that students may be avoiding default (perhaps with some help from their former colleges), but they are struggling to pay down principal soon after leaving college.

(2) For-profit colleges had higher non-repayment rates than default rates. Being a for-profit college (compared to a public college) was associated with a 1.7 percent increase in default rates, yet an 8.5% increase in non-repayment. Given the pressure colleges face to keep default rates below the threshold needed to maintain federal loan eligibility—and the political pressures for-profit colleges have faced—this result strongly suggests that colleges are engaging in default management strategies.

(3) The factors affecting repayment rates changed relatively little in importance over time. Although there were some statistically significant differences in coefficients between one-year and seven-year repayment rates, the general story is that a higher percentage of underrepresented students was associated with higher levels of non-repayment across time.

As loan repayment rates (hopefully!) continue to be reported in the College Scorecard, it will be interesting to see whether colleges try to manipulate that measure by helping students close to repaying $1 in principal get over that threshold. If the factors affecting repayment rates significantly change for students who entered repayment after 2015, that is another powerful indicator that colleges try to look good on performance metrics. On the other hand, the growth of income-driven repayment systems that allow students to be current on their loans without repaying principal, could also change the relationships. In either case, as colleges adapt to a new accountability system, policymakers would be wise to consider additional metrics in order to get a better measure of a college’s true performance.