Would Student Debt Forgiveness Drive Inflation?

During the last year or so, inflation has grabbed the attention of the American public. The price of just about everything is way up, with gas prices, food, and rent grabbing the nation’s attention. As I write this piece, the most recent inflation rate checks in at 8.3%, which is leading the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates and also likely increases the risk of a coming recession.

I have been talking for months about the squeeze that inflation puts on colleges, as tuition prices are rising much slower than the costs that colleges face. Although a recession probably would result in an increase in enrollment across higher education, that is not the reason why any of us want to see enrollment increase. Therefore, I am deeply concerned about inflation and its ramifications.

Much of the higher education policy discussion over the last two years has been dominated by the issue of student debt forgiveness as payment pauses continue. The latest news on this front is that the Biden administration is still pondering $10,000 in forgiveness (with a limit on income to qualify), and that high inflation rates are causing them to potentially rethink this issue.

I have plenty of thoughts and concerns about how student debt forgiveness would work, whether it should be limited to undergraduate debt only, whether it would lead to potential limits on federal student loans, and that we would be back in the exact same situation in just a few years without meaningful reforms. But I’m actually not too concerned about the effects of $10,000 in student debt forgiveness on inflation. Here’s why, with some caveats.

Let’s look at three groups of students that will be affected in different ways by $10,000 in forgiveness.

The first group is people with less than $10,000 in debt. As far as I know, nobody is getting handed a check for $10,000 and that benefits would be spread out. (I could see a world in which people who chose to pay off their loans since March 2020 get refunds, but I doubt that will happen.) Let’s say someone had $8,000 in debt remaining to pay off over five years, with monthly payments of $175. Those payments would be completely wiped out, and would increase the capacity to spend right now. But would people spend that money or save it?

Let’s keep in mind that borrowers have not had to make any payments for the last 27 months. Any borrowers who do not have to make payments have the same monthly take-home pay as they do now, but with the knowledge that they won’t have to resume payments at some point in the future. I think that could affect making some larger purchases like cars (a market with lots of inflation right now), but probably not a purchase like a home due to the larger sticker price.

Now consider borrowers with more than $10,000 in debt who are not using income-driven repayment. Consider someone with $20,000 in debt that they are paying over a standard ten-year plan, with payments of about $212 per month at 5% interest. If $10,000 gets forgiven, how does this work? One option is that students stay on the ten-year payment plan and drop their payments in half. Another option is to keep the same $212 payment, but pay off in about half the time. The first option could increase discretionary income now, while the second option does nothing now and increases it later. This pushes any inflation concerns years into the future.

Finally, let’s turn to borrowers with more than $10,000 in debt who are using income-driven repayment or pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness. For many of these borrowers, the effect will be less money forgiven years down the road. For example, instead of having $60,000 forgiven under PSLF, taking $10,000 off the balance now would result in the same monthly payments and maybe $40,000 forgiven in the future. This shouldn’t affect inflation at all.

My takeaway: the short-term effects on inflation are likely to be fairly modest. And if payments resume alongside forgiveness, there may even be a modest decrease in inflation compared to the current repayment pause. There could also be modest positive pressures on longer-term inflation, but that will hopefully be less of a concern if inflation is brought under control in the next few years.

A closing note: expect an administrative nightmare when trying to put an income limit on student debt forgiveness. The Department of Education cannot access IRS data on income, so this would require that people honestly provide their own income based on instructions provided. If the goal is to make sure that the most affluent individuals do not get debt forgiven, it is a better idea to use data from FAFSAs to make the determination (credit to the brilliant Sue Dynarski here). For example, debt forgiveness could be tied to an Expected Family Contribution threshold that excludes the wealthiest few percent of students’ families.

Will Republicans Try to End the Federal Student Loan Program?

Multiple news outlets are reporting that the Biden administration will announce a fifth extension of the federal student loan repayment pause that began in March 2020 shortly, with this extension going through the end of August 2022. This news doesn’t seem to make anyone truly happy, with borrower advocates and many progressives advocating for an extension through the end of 2022 and/or outright student debt forgiveness. On the right, conservatives are unhappy with continuing to kick the repayment can down the road when the economy is strong and a sizable share of borrowers could resume repayment (with or without income-driven repayment).

At this point, it seems more likely than not to me that the Biden administration will not resume student loan repayment during its time in office. There is almost no chance that the administration will restart payments in August as Democrats face a challenging midterm election and need every vote that they can get from their base and younger voters. Then 2023 starts the next presidential election cycle. If Biden and/or Harris want to run for office, resuming payments is a terrible way to position themselves in a Democratic primary.

Meanwhile, Republicans are stewing. Rep. Virginia Foxx, ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee, had this to say (h/t Michael Stratford of Politico):

If Republicans take control of Congress in the November elections, I fully expect a serious effort to stop issuing federal student loans framed around statements like that from Rep. Foxx. 2023 is a great time for Republicans to make this play, as somewhere between ten and 250 Republicans in the House and Senate seem likely to run for president in 2024 and this is great messaging in a GOP primary. Additionally, a certain Biden veto makes this a vote with no real consequences, allowing people to vote yes without cutting off access to federal loans. There is a realistic chance that legislation would pass Congress while not becoming law.

Fast forward to 2025. If Republicans take control of the White House along with Congress, then they have to either put up or shut up about this issue. On health care, Republicans largely shut up because they could not agree on a replacement for the Affordable Care Act. The same may well happen about federal student loans, with a few moderate Republicans stopping passage to protect students and/or their own political careers in swing districts. Possible replacements include education savings accounts, income share agreements (a la Jeb Bush), or simply turning the issue over to colleges and states to figure out.

Do I think that Republicans will end federal student loans? Probably not, but I also didn’t expect payments to still be paused in April 2022 when I first suggested a pause on March 18, 2020. The more likely outcome is efforts to limit graduate and professional student borrowing to reduce the federal loan portfolio without affecting the most vulnerable undergraduates.

Trends in Debt and Earnings for Common Programs of Study

The Department of Education’s updated College Scorecard dataset contains two new features at the program level. (I looked at the new institution-level data in my previous post.) The first feature is information on median Parent PLUS loan debt and the number of students whose parents take on debt. The second is earnings two years after graduation, which added onto last year’s one-year data.

In this post, I constructed a dataset of students who graduated in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years combined with one-year earnings from calendar years 2016 and 2017 and two-year earnings from calendar years 2017 and 2018. (A note to analysts: the most recent data file shows debt for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 graduating cohorts, one-year earnings from the 2015-16 and 2016-17 cohorts, and two-year earnings from the 2014-15 and 2015-16 cohorts. This will result in some funky numbers, so download the big dataset instead and do your own merging.) I then pulled data for fields of study that had data from 50 or more programs at each credential level.

You can download my summary dataset here, and some key findings are below.

Undergraduate certificate

Both earnings and debt burdens are typically fairly low, and two-year earnings were always higher than one-year earnings (which was true across all programs and credential levels). The median cosmetology graduate had (reported) earnings of just $17,821 two years after graduation, but median student debt was $12,851, only about 14% of student borrowers had their parents take on Parent PLUS loans, and median PLUS debt was just $7,397. Vehicle maintenance and repair had the second-highest two-year earnings ($33,632, just behind nursing at $34,108), but about 34% of borrowers had Parent PLUS loans of nearly $15,000.

Associate degree

Parent PLUS loans were relatively uncommon at this level, with the exception of culinary arts (about 20% of students had parents with PLUS debt). Registered nurses earned $57,247 per year, far higher than any other field. Liberal arts/general studies graduates had modest earnings ($26,159), but their student debt burdens of $13,452 were at least $10,000 below all other fields of study.

Bachelor’s degree

Earnings two years after graduation ranged from $25,243 in fine arts to $66,218 in mechanical engineering. A large number of majors clustered between $30,000 and $35,000 in earnings, while student debt was typically between $25,000 and $31,000.  Fields dominated by adults, such as health/medical administration, had much higher student debt burdens due to their ability to access higher independent loan limits. PLUS loan amounts typically ranged between $20,000 and $30,000, but human resources ($13,637), liberal arts (16,450), design ($40,231) and film ($46,006) stood out as outliers. Film was also a concern in that about 41% of student borrowers also had Parent PLUS loans. This compares to fields like business and nursing, where 10%-15% of students had their parents take on loans.

Master’s degree

The variation in debt (from that institution only) and earnings was much larger for master’s degrees. Two-year earnings ranged from $27,941 in music to $102,895 in earnings, and debt ranged from $27,492 in curriculum and instruction to $95,823 in allied health. Only six programs had debt burdens larger than second-year earnings, led by mental health services at 1.43. Surprisingly, theology graduates (at $44,485) earned nearly as much as criminal justice graduates (at $46,269).

Doctoral degrees

Based on these data alone, going to medical school looks like a terrible life choice as two-year earnings were $58,056 compared to debt of $167,169. However, most new medical doctors do a residency of three years or so before launching into a well-paid career. Pharmacy and nursing graduates see six-figure salaries from the start and have less debt. And I have to give a shout-out to educational administration programs. The overall numbers are solid (earnings of $79,713 compared to debt of $68,877). Graduates of the department that I chair at Seton Hall earned $111,435 with debt of $62,841. Time to hit people up for donations???

A First Look at Parent PLUS Loan Burdens of Graduates

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Education released its long-awaited updates to the College Scorecard website and dataset. The updated institution-level dataset has two glaring omissions that carried over from last year’s update. The first is that student loan repayment rates are no longer tracked, which is frustrating given the size of the federal government’s student loan portfolio. Taxpayers and students have the right to know whether students can manage their loans without heavy reliance on income-driven repayment. The second is that post-college earnings are excluded once again at the institution level. The program-level dataset (which I will discuss in a future post) has data, but just for graduates. That’s really useful for colleges with low graduation rates!

But in good news, this year’s Scorecard includes data on Parent PLUS loans. There are currently $101 billion in Parent PLUS Loans outstanding, $10 billion more than just two years ago. Parent PLUS loans do not count in the current cohort default rate measure, but the few studies that have gained access to PLUS data suggest that default and repayment are concerns. Because the older parents of students are expected to pay off these loans as they approach retirement, Parent PLUS loans also raise concerns about the intergenerational transmission of wealth and the growing racial wealth gap in America.

In this blog post, I dig into new Scorecard data on median Parent PLUS loan debt among 2017-18 and 2018-19 graduates, focusing on bachelor’s degree recipients attending 1,103 public and private nonprofit colleges (excluding special-focus institutions) that had sufficient data on student debt and other institutional characteristics.

First of all, the median institution had median Parent PLUS debt among borrowers of $24,399 and median student debt among borrowers of $24,250. The first graph below show that median student debt and median parent debt are only weakly correlated. This is not surprising due to the presence of loan limits for undergraduate students (a maximum of $31,000 for dependent students). But it does seem like some students turn to parent loans after hitting the cap on student loans.

The Scorecard also provides an estimate of the percentage of students whose parents took PLUS loans, and the upper bound of the estimate is 15%. The next graph shows the relationship between the percentage of students whose parents take on loans and median parent debt. There is a positive relationship here, although this is driven in part by the small number of colleges with high borrowing rates. Very few colleges have more than 30% of parents taking on PLUS loans.

The next graph examines the relationship between Parent PLUS debt and the percentage of students who received Pell Grants in 2013-14 (the likely entry year for many of these graduates). There is a strong negative relationship, which could be due to expensive private colleges being more likely to have fewer Pell recipients. The parents of Pell recipients may also seek to borrow less money than non-Pell parents, which is strongly hinted at in Scorecard data that separates borrowing by Pell status.

Historically black colleges get a lot of attention for high Parent PLUS loan burdens, but this did not hold in my sample. The 50 HBCUs with complete data had median PLUS debt of $16,531 and median student debt of $29,502. This compared to $24,540 in PLUS debt and $24,000 in student debt for non-HBCUs. HBCU graduates likely have more in student debt because students can borrow more under their own name if their parents do not qualify for PLUS loans. The two graphs below show no consistent relationship between parent debt and the share of Black or White students.

Finally, I peeked at institutional selectivity (proxied here by ACT composite scores). As median ACT scores rose, parent debt also rose. This is likely due to selective colleges being much more expensive and parents being willing to spend lots of money to send their children there.

My next post will dive into the new program-level data, but I’m happy to take requests for additional institution-level factors to consider that could affect parent debt. This could turn into an interesting short journal article!

It’s Time to Suspend Federal Student Loan Payments

It is hard to believe that higher education was essentially functioning normally just two weeks ago. Then the novel coronavirus started to make itself known, with travel being suspended, in-person classes being suspended and then moved completely online, and now all on-campus operations are quickly grinding to a complete halt. Much of the American economy is also grinding to a halt thanks to social distancing practices and restrictions on certain sectors of the economy.

This sudden recession (depression?) has placed higher education under an incredible amount of strain, although our industry is far better off in the short term than many other service industries. This has also resulted in a number of proposed economic stimulus packages and other ideas to keep the economy moving. President Trump’s current higher education-related proposal is to unilaterally waive interest on student loan payments. But since this does not actually reduce payments (instead just allowing people to pay down more principal), the economic benefits of the proposal are likely to be zero if this plan survives potential legal challenges.

If the federal government wants to provide economic relief for millions of Americans who will likely be struggling with their student loan payments (or getting into income-driven repayment) over the next several months, my recommendation is relatively straightforward. Congress should seriously consider passing legislation to suspend all federal student loan payments for a period of six to twelve months. Just like the coronavirus is freezing the economy, freezing student loan payments would give Americans a chance to recover before either resuming normal payments or going onto income-driven repayment plans. A six-month halt would also give people time to navigate the complicated income-driven repayment system, which is likely to be overwhelmed in the short term.

To explain how this would work, consider a student with $15,000 in debt and six years of payments remaining. In the case of a six-month pause, the student would still have $15,000 in debt and six years of payments six months from now. Since this plan would not directly forgive any student loans, the taxpayer burden would be relatively small in the long term. The only cost would be that more struggling borrowers would enroll in income-driven repayment plans. I also would not count this six-month pause toward the required number of payments for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, as no payments would be made.

Hitting the pause button on student loans could be a good way to get more money in the hands of Americans in the short term while not resulting in a massive forgiveness of student debt. It is an idea worth serious consideration at this point.

Why Public Service Loan Forgiveness Should Become a Monthly Benefit

It’s safe to say that the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program for federal student loans has run into a number of obstacles over the last few years. In order to qualify for PSLF, borrowers must currently make 120 monthly payments while enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan and working for a qualified nonprofit organization. The balance of the loan is then forgiven after the PSLF application is approved. To this point, just over one percent of PSLF applications have been forgiven, although I expect that rate to increase over time as more borrowers fix paperwork issues and/or make more payments.

Setting a whole host of logistical and implementation issues aside, there are two other problems with the current PSLF program. The first is that requiring borrowers to make 120 payments while working for a qualified nonprofit can severely restrict someone’s career trajectory, as borrowers may feel trapped in their current job until their PSLF application is approved. This can also stop people from going into public service because the promise of forgiveness is too far away to be real.

The second problem is that the average amount forgiven is sizable as benefits disproportionately go to people with expensive graduate degrees. The average balance forgiven under PSLF is just over $63,000, and the average outstanding balance of people who have indicated interest in PSLF by filling out an employment certification form is nearly $90,000. Having this type of loan forgiveness increases the risk of a Republican Congress or White House killing the program entirely, as President Trump has repeatedly proposed.

One potential way to address both of these concerns is to make PSLF a monthly benefit instead of giving borrowers a lottery ticket for potentially massive loan forgiveness after ten years. I have had the pleasure of working with the Bipartisan Policy Center over the last couple of years on higher ed policy issues, and last week they released a set of 45 bipartisan proposals for Higher Education Act reauthorization. One of the proposals from their blue-ribbon panel was to turn PSLF into a benefit of $300 that borrowers would automatically receive each month for up to five years of working in public service. This would significantly limit the overall benefit that borrowers receive (a total of $18,000), but it would help borrowers manage their principal upfront while also directing more resources to students with less debt (and likely less income).

If Higher Education Act reauthorization is to move forward in Washington—and that is an enormous “if” at this point—the idea of frontloading PSLF benefits deserves serious discussion. The monthly/annual amount forgiven and the number of years of forgiveness are certainly up for debate, but the key idea of making benefits immediately tangible while limiting back-end forgiveness makes a lot of sense.

A First Look at Program-Level Earnings Data by Credential Level

The U.S. Department of Education has been promising program-level earnings data in the College Scorecard for several months now following the release of program-level debt data back in May. Debt data are interesting, but I think everyone was waiting for earnings data to come out. And it came out today, sending me scrambling to get into the data in between meetings, teaching, and other responsibilities of a tenured faculty member. The data can be found here, and please do read the documentation before digging into the data.

Before I get back to meetings, here are a few takeaways:

(1) Debt and earnings data are based on different samples of students. Debt data only include people with federal loans, while earnings data include people with any type of financial aid. At community colleges, these samples are quite different because more students typically get Pell Grants than loans. But for graduate programs, the numbers really only differ by a few work-study students.

(2) Most programs aren’t covered in the data, but most students are. For the most recent data file, there are 216,638 programs listed. Of these programs, 45,371 have earnings data and 51,423 have debt data.

(3) Earnings data are soon after graduation. Earnings were measured in 2016-17 for students graduating in 2014-15 and 2015-16. More years of data will be included in the future.

(4) Want to make money? Be a dentist. The program with highest earnings was (The) Ohio State University’s dental program, with earnings of $231,200 and debt of $173,309. Dental and other health sciences programs dominated the top of the earnings distributions, with a few law and business programs thrown in. Most of these programs have high debt burdens. On the other hand, Parker University’s chiropractic program brought up the rear with debt of $193,328 and earnings of $2,700. Something strange is probably going on with the data there.

(5) Earnings and debt vary considerably by credential level. In general, both debt and earnings increase across credential levels, but debt increases at a higher rate. As shown below, the median debt-to-earnings ratio across first professional (law, medicine, etc.) programs was 191%. Earnings often increase quickly in future years, but the first few years won’t be fun.

I look forward to seeing a whole host of (responsible) analyses using the new data, so keep me posted of any good takes. This has the potential to influence families and colleges alike, and I’m particularly interested to see if the data release affects whether colleges close low-performing programs (as I discussed in my last blog post).

Income-Based Repayment Becoming a Costly Solution to Student Loan Debt

This post was originally published at The Conversation.

When Congress established the income-driven repayment for federal student loans back in 2007, it was touted as a way to help student loan borrowers save money by capping monthly payments at a certain percentage of a borrower’s income.

Since then, student loan debt has risen from US$500 billion to where it is now approaching the $1.5 trillion threshold. The federal government expects to forgive over $100 billion of the $350 billion in loans under income-driven repayment as of 2015. That means taxpayers are picking up the bill.

This has put the entire income-driven repayment system in jeopardy as there have been proposals by congressional Republicans and the Trump administration to reduce the amount of loans forgiven and end the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which is a special repayment option for people in public service fields. So far, these proposals have failed to become law, but expect to see them put forth again in the future as concerns about program costs continue to grow.

As a researcher who specializes in higher education policy and financial aid, here are some of my insights on how income-driven repayment works, why its future is now in jeopardy and some potential options that can protect the most vulnerable borrowers while also helping taxpayers.

How it works

Six months after they leave college, students who took out a federal student loan are automatically put into a repayment plan with fixed monthly payments over 10 years. This is similar to how mortgages and car loans work. However, repayment can often be a major burden for student loan borrowers who take low-paying jobs or struggle to find employment after college.

To address this issue, Congress and the Department of Education created a number of options during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies that tied student loan borrowers’ payments to their discretionary income, that is, how much money they have left after meeting their basic needs.

Most students who take out federal loans today qualify for a plan called Pay As You Earn. This plan – known as PAYE – limits monthly payments to 10% of a student loan borrower’s discretionary income for up to 20 years.

There are two requirements. First, student loan borrowers must fill out paperwork each year with their income to be eligible for income-driven repayment. In recent years, more than half of federal student loan borrowers have failed to complete the paperwork on time, putting them back into the standard plan. Second, if any part of the loan is not repaid within 20 years, the remaining balance is forgiven. But this forgiveness counts as income and taxes must be paid on it in that year.

Borrowers who work for government agencies and certain nonprofit organizations can qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which limits payments to 10% of discretionary income for as little as ten years with no income tax penalty. So far, just 1% of borrowers who applied for forgiveness have had their loans forgiven, but this rate will likely increase over time as the Department of Education gets better at managing the forgiveness process.

Problems abound

In some respects, the biggest problem with income-driven repayment is that too many people are taking advantage of it.

The share of students who reduced their loan balances by even one dollar within five years of leaving college has fallen from 67% to 51% over the last five years as low monthly payments under income-driven repayment mean that many borrowers’ balances are growing instead of shrinking. This has increased the projected price tag of these programs to the federal government well beyond expectations.

These programs tend to be used more frequently by borrowers with large debt burdens – especially those who have more than $100,000 in debt. Data from the Department of Education show that students who owe $100,000 or more make up just over one-third of all outstanding student debt but nearly half of all borrowers in income-driven repayment.

Trying to pay back $100,000 in student loans is certainly not easy, and I can speak from experience thanks to my wife’s law school debt. But most of the borrowers with large student debt burdens tend to be professionals with graduate degrees and reasonably high incomes. Many of the borrowers who have the greatest difficulty repaying their loans never earned a college degree and thus did not see substantial financial benefits from their investment.

What can be done?

As a researcher of student financial aid, my concern is that policymakers might throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and get rid of the entire income-driven repayment system.

In my view, a better way to stop borrowers with $100,000 in debt from getting most of the benefits is to limit the amount forgiven. This can be done by capping the amount of loans that can be repaid through income-based repayment or extending the repayment term.

President Obama proposed limiting Public Service Loan Forgiveness to the first $57,500 in loans, although this did not pass Congress. His administration also implemented a program that required graduate students to pay for five more years than undergraduate students.

The savings from requiring higher-income borrowers with large loans to repay more of their loans can then be used to help the most vulnerable borrowers. Students who dropped out of college after a semester or two could see their debt forgiven more quickly and without having to pay additional income taxes. This may be a tough political sell, but this could also encourage students – especially those who are the first in their families to attend college – to give college a shot.

Some of the money could also be used to support larger Pell Grants to reduce the need for borrowing in the first place. Cutting the total amount of loans forgiven in half would allow for an increase of about 20%, or $1,200 per year, in the maximum Pell Grant, which is $6,195 for the 2019-2020 academic year. This would help cover much of the tuition increases over the last decade and reduce student loan debt.

The Conversation

How Much Money Should Students Borrow for College?

Well-known personal finance personality Dave Ramsey apparently tweeted out something about paying for college yesterday. When I went to click on the link, I got the following notice from Twitter.

As far as I am aware, this is the first time that someone has blocked me on Twitter (I only use the blocking function for likely Russian bots and people who have made racist or sexist statements against people I know). And I’m pretty sure I know the reason why Ramsey blocked me—this interview that I did with Money magazine last spring in which I noted that his advice to avoid all college debt is a generally bad idea for students. Limiting ridiculous credit card debt and having a plan to pay off debt eventually are sound recommendations, but delaying the labor market benefits of a college credential to work your way through debt-free just doesn’t make long-term sense for most people. (And research shows that borrowing for college can improve student outcomes.)

On the other hand, students also should be reasonable about how much they borrow for college. While I was pulling up the Money magazine link for the previous paragraph, I noticed that their feature piece today is on someone with $185,000 in student loan debt and who is struggling to make minimum payments. There are key details missing in the piece, such as how much of the debt is for graduate school, the person’s income, and how much interest has capitalized, but this is certainly a cause for concern absent additional information (which seems to be missing from many of these pieces).

So this brings me to a question that I get asked quite a bit: how much should students borrow for college? To me, the correct answer is generally “it depends”—but most people don’t like that classic answer from a tenured professor. This leads me to specify some basic ground rules that students and their families should consider before signing that Master Promissory Note.

For undergraduate students: I am generally not concerned if students take out the maximum amount in federal student loans in their own name while in college. Younger (dependent) students can typically take out up to $31,000 in federal loans, while independent students can take out up to $57,500. These loans have generous income-driven repayment options that reduce payments if college doesn’t work out financially for a student. (Any forgiven balance outside of Public Service Loan Forgiveness may be taxed, but my guess is that Congress patches that fix on an annual basis going forward.)

Beyond that amount, students and their families may be able to get Parent PLUS or private loans, which generally require a co-signer and varied levels of creditworthiness in order to qualify. Parent PLUS loans scare me (as I talked about last fall with NPR), as they require many parents to pay loans into their retirement and have much lower credit standards than private loans. Students and their families need to have long and hard conversations about borrowing beyond the federal student loan limit to see if parents or co-signers can afford to repay those loans and the student’s likely ability to help parents repay those debts.

For graduate students: Most six-figure student debt burdens are from graduate school, since students can borrow up to the full cost of attendance in their own name through the Grad PLUS program and many of these programs tend to be expensive. New program-level College Scorecard data show that a large number of master’s and professional doctorate programs graduate students with more than $100,000 in debt. And I can speak to this personally as my wife and I are down to the final year of payments on her $110,000 in law school debt.

Income-driven repayment plans and PSLF extend to all graduate debt through the federal government, so there is some protection against low earnings after attending graduate school. However, unless a student is sure that he or she is going to be in a public service field and receive PSLF, it is important to keep loan balances in mind. Income-driven repayment plans require 20 years of payments instead of the ten years under PSLF, and this requires committing ten percent of your income over 150% of the poverty line for much of your prime earning years. Sit down with your family and try to get a handle on expected future earnings (program-level earnings data will come out this fall) and other expenses such as childcare and housing and see what is affordable. $100,000 in debt is extremely manageable for a two-income household making $150,000 per year, but much harder for a single adult making $60,000 per year.

The right answer for how much a student should borrow for college depends quite a bit on individual circumstances, but in general the modest federal loan limits for undergraduate students are manageable for most graduates with the help of income-driven repayment programs. Dave Ramsey may be an influential voice in the personal finance world, but following all of his advice on paying for college is likely to be a losing proposition for many students.

Some Thoughts on Program-Level College Scorecard Data

The U.S. Department of Education has been promising to make program-level outcome data available on the College Scorecard for several years now. The Obama administration started the underlying data collection after releasing the initial Scorecard to the public in 2015, and the Trump administration elevated this topic by issuing an executive order earlier this year. I was at a technical review panel at ED last month on this topic, and I just noticed earlier today that members of the public can now comment on our two-day discussion in one of Washington’s most scenic windowless conference rooms.

So I was surprised to see a press release this afternoon announcing that the College Scorecard had been updated in several important ways. This update includes more than just program-level data. The public-facing site now has data on certificate-granting institutions, as well as using IPEDS data on graduation rates that go beyond first-time, full-time students. Needless to say, I’m happy to see both of these improvements, even though I am somewhat skeptical that students pursuing vocational certificates will access the public-facing Scorecard to the same extent that students seeking bachelor’s degrees will.

But this blog post focuses on program-level Scorecard data, which are preliminary and will be updated as soon as later this year. I used the combined 2015-16 and 2016-17 dataset (the most recent year available), which includes data on all graduates who received federal financial aid. This means that coverage is better for certain programs than others; for example, law schools are better covered than PhD programs since relatively few PhD students borrow compared to law students. The dataset contains 194,575 programs across 6,094 institutions.

Here are some highlights:

  • Median debt data are only available for 42,430 programs (21.8% of the sample), as small programs do not have data shown due to privacy concerns. But based on IPEDS completions, about 70% of students are enrolled in programs where debt data are available.
  • Here are the average median debt burdens by credential level:
    • Undergraduate certificate: $10,953 (n=4,146)
    • Associate: $15,134 (n=5,952)
    • Bachelor’s: $23,382 (n=23,649)
    • Graduate certificate: $48,513 (n=266)
    • Master’s: $42,335 (n=7,011)
    • First professional: $141,310 (n=660)
    • Doctoral: $95,715 (n=716)
  • 172 programs had over $200,000 in median debt, and it looks like the top 116 programs are all in health sciences. The data are preliminary, but Roseman University of Health Sciences’s dentistry program has the top listed debt burden at a cool $410,213. Meanwhile, 3,970 programs had median debt burdens below $10,000.

I am thrilled to see program-level debt data, both as a researcher (if I only had more time to sit down and dive into the data!) and as the newly-minted director of higher education graduate programs. Thanks to this dataset, I now know that roughly half of the students in the educational leadership doctoral program (K-12 and higher ed) at Seton Hall borrow, and median debt among graduates is $63,045. I hope that colleges around the country use this tool to get a handle on their graduates’ situations now that data are available for more than just those programs that were covered by gainful employment.

Oh, and about gainful employment. Once earnings data come out (which hopefully will be soon), it will be possible to calculate a debt-to-earnings ratio for programs that cover a large number of students even without the sanctions present in the now-mothballed gainful employment regulations. Also expect to see loan repayment rates in the updated Scorecard, which will shed some interesting light on income-driven repayment rate usage and the implications for students and taxpayers.