Is Student Loan Debt Really a Crisis?

This article I wrote was originally published on The Conversation.

Americans owed nearly $1.2 trillion in student loan debt as of March 2015, more than three times the amount of debt from just a decade ago. Part of this increase in debt is due to more students attending college, but part can also be attributed to just the borrower holding more debt.

Between the 2007-08 and 2011-12 academic years, nationally representative data from the US Department of Education show the median debt among graduating college seniors who took out loans rising from $20,000 to $26,500. This trend has likely continued over time due to rising tuition prices, meaning that the 70% of students who borrow for a four-year degree can expect to take on over $30,000 in debt in the future. Many students are struggling to repay their loans, as evidenced by high rates of default, delinquency and forbearance due to economic hardships.

These concerns have led some politicians (primarily Democrats) to call mounting student loan debt a “crisis,” while offering potential solutions such as reducing interest rates on student loans, allowing students to refinance their loans at lower rates, or more recently, proposing debt-free public higher education.

But is student loan debt really a crisis?

Debt crisis for whom?

As a professor whose research focuses on higher education finance and accountability policy – and who married an attorney with lots of student loan debt – I look at the student “debt crisis” differently.

I can see the types of students for whom debt is a crisis.

Although there are some exceptions, the crisis is generally not with people like my wife and me, who have advanced degrees and the ability to manage high debt payments due to earning more money (and knowing whether and how to use income-based repayment programs that cap debt payments at a certain percentage of one’s income).

Rather, the crisis is among students with relatively little debt but dismal job prospects.

Research by the New York Federal Reserve Bank found that 35% of students with less than $5,000 in debt defaulted within six years, twice the rate of students with more than $100,000 in debt.

Additionally, these students with low debt amounts and low earnings are disproportionately likely to be dropouts. Sixty-three percent of students who started college in 2003-04 and defaulted on their loans by 2009 were college dropouts, while students with a bachelor’s or associate degree were only 4% of defaults.

Impact of debt

Student loan debt has also been blamed for a range of other negative outcomes in various media articles, including delaying marriage, having children and purchasing a home.

The raw data certainly support the relationship between student loan debt and delaying these key markers of adulthood. It is true that the home ownership rate of young adults without debt exceeded the rate of those with debt for the first time in 2012.

But identifying a causal impact of student loan debt on these outcomes is harder to do: the characteristics of the types of people who went to college and borrowed are different from those who either did not go to college or went to college without taking on debt. For example, students may not borrow for college if their parents foot the bill – and these individuals may also get help putting down a down payment for a house.

Part of the declining home ownership rate among those with debt is likely because college graduates are more likely to move to expensive urban areas than those who did not attend college or take on any debt. Most of the students with little debt are dropouts, not graduates.

In my view, the best empirical research examining whether student loan debt affects home ownership is a working paper by Jason Houle and Lawrence Berger that has found a significant, but small, relationship between student loan debt and home ownership.

However, two different factors could be at play to cause this relationship.

It could be because prospective buyers with debt are unable to obtain a mortgage due to part of their income being needed to pay off student loans. But it could also be because those with debt perceive that they will be rejected if they apply for a loan (even though it may not be true).

Who should be the focus of policy?

Student loan debt is increasingly becoming an unpleasant part of life for millions of Americans, but for many borrowers – particularly those with advanced degrees and high debt burdens – debt is far from a crisis.

For example, the Brookings Institution’s Elizabeth Akers stated in her recent congressional testimony that although the length of student loan payments has increased over time, the average monthly payment has barely increased.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a darling among progressives, pushed back against Akers, contending that the increasing length of payments construes a debt crisis.

While I’m certainly sympathetic to students frustrated by years of student loan payments, policies designed to help struggling borrowers should focus on students with the greatest need.

Students who left college without a degree and are unable to find a decent job are facing a crisis as they struggle to make ends meet. Our limited resources should be used to help these students complete a credential and repay their loans instead of targeting lawyers with six-figure debt loads.

The Conversation

Robert Kelchen is an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.

Read the original article.

Is “Overborrowing” for College an Epidemic?

As the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee continues to slowly move toward Higher Education Act reauthorization, the committee held a hearing this week on the possibility of institutional risk-sharing with respect to federal student financial aid programs. This idea, which has bipartisan support at least in principle, would require at least some low-performing colleges to be responsible for a portion of loans not repaid to the federal government. (I’ve written about this idea in the past.)

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the committee chair, began his opening statement with a discussion of “overborrowing,” which he defines as students borrowing more than they need to in order to attend college. Along with Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and other colleagues, he is sponsoring the FAST Act, which contains a provision that would prorate the amount of funds part-time students can borrow for living expenses. Financial aid administrators are also concerned about overborrowing, as evidenced by their professional association’s push to allow colleges to offer students less than the maximum loan amount. This is also something that Sen. Alexander discussed in his opening statement.

But there is no commonly-accepted definition of “overborrowing,” nor is there empirical research that clearly defines how much borrowing is too much. I can see why policymakers want to limit the amount of money that part-time students can borrow for living expenses while in college, as students may hit their lifetime loan caps before completing their degrees as part-time students. But, as research that I’ve conducted with Sara Goldrick-Rab at Wisconsin and Braden Hosch at Stony Brook shows, about one-third of all colleges set living expenses at least $3,000 below what it likely costs to live. This effectively limits student borrowing, as they cannot have a financial aid package exceeding the cost of attendance.

Some people have said that high student loan default rates are a clear indicator that overborrowing is a common concern. Yet students with a small amount of debt are at a higher risk of default, as many of them dropped out of college without a degree and were unable to find gainful employment. It could be the case that borrowing more money would be a better decision, as that money might help students stay in college and complete degrees. However, a substantial percentage of students from low-income families are loan-averse—either completely unwilling to take on debt or only willing to take on a bare minimum as a last resort. Underborrowing is the concern in higher education funding that few people are talking about, and it deserves additional study.

Finally, it is worth a reminder that the typical student graduating with a bachelor’s degree has about $30,000 in debt, although there are huge differences by race/ethnicity and family income. This is in spite of media reports that focus on borrowers with atypically high debt burdens. While I’m concerned about the substantial percentage of students borrowing large amounts of money for graduate school (and particularly the implications for taxpayers due to the presence of income-based repayment programs), it’s hard to convincingly argue that overborrowing for an undergraduate degree is truly an epidemic.

Do Student Loans Result in Tuition Increases? Why It’s So Hard to Tell

One of the longstanding questions in higher education finance is whether access to federal financial aid dollars is one of the factors behind tuition increases. This was famously stated by Education Secretary William Bennett in a 1987 New York Times editorial:

“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. In 1978, subsidies became available to a greatly expanded number of students. In 1980, college tuitions began rising year after year at a rate that exceeded inflation. Federal student aid policies do not cause college price inflation, but there is little doubt that they help make it possible.”

Since Secretary Bennett made his statement (now called the Bennett Hypothesis), more students are receiving federal financial aid. In 1987-1988, the average full-time equivalent student received $2,414 in federal loans, which rose to $6,374 in 2012-2013. The federal government has also increased spending on Pell Grants during this period, although the purchasing power of the grant has eroded due to large increases in tuition.

The Bennett Hypothesis continues to be popular in certain circles, as illustrated by comments by Dallas Mavericks owner and technology magnate Mark Cuban. In 2012, he wrote:

“The point of the numbers is that getting a student loan is easy. Too easy.

You know who knows that the money is easy better than anyone ? The schools that are taking that student loan money in tuition. Which is exactly why they have no problems raising costs for tuition each and every year.

Why wouldn’t they act in the same manner as real estate agents acted during the housing bubble? Raise prices and easy money will be there to pay your price. Good business, right ? Until its not.”

Recently, Cuban called for limiting student loans to $10,000 per year, as reported by Inc.:

“If Mark Cuban is running the economy, I’d go and say, ‘Sallie Mae, the maximum amount that you’re allowed to guarantee for any student in a year is $10,000, period, end of story.’  

We can talk about Republican or Democratic approaches to the economy but until you fix the student loan bubble–and that’s where the real bubble is–we don’t have a chance. All this other stuff is shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Cuban’s plan wouldn’t actually affect the vast majority of undergraduate students, as loan limits are often below $10,000 per year. Dependent students are limited to no more than $7,500 per year in subsidized and unsubsidized loans and independent students are capped at $12,500 per year. But this would affect graduate students, who can borrow $20,500 per year in unsubsidized loans, as well as students and their families taking out PLUS loans, which are only capped by the cost of attendance.

Other commentators do not believe in the Bennett Hypothesis. An example of this is from David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (the professional association for private nonprofit colleges). In 2012, he wrote that “the hypothesis is nothing more than an urban legend,” citing federal studies that did not find a relationship.

The research on the Bennett Hypothesis can best be classified as mixed, with some studies finding a modest causal relationship between federal financial aid and tuition increases and others finding no relationship. (See this Wonkblog piece for a short overview or Donald Heller’s monograph for a more technical treatment.) But for data reasons, the studies of the Bennett Hypothesis either focus on all financial aid lumped together (which is broader than the original hypothesis) or just Pell Grants.

So do student loans result in tuition increases? There is certainly a correlation between federal financial aid availability and college tuition, but the first rule of empirical research is that correlation does not imply causation. And establishing causality is extremely difficult given the near-universal nature of student loans and the lack of change in program rules over time. It is essential to have some change in the program in order to identify effects separate from other types of financial aid.

In an ideal world (from a researcher’s perspective), some colleges would be randomly assigned to have lower loan limits than others and then longer-term trends in tuition could be examined. That, of course, is politically difficult to do. Another methodological possibility would be to look at the colleges that do not participate in federal student loan programs, which are concentrated among community colleges in several states. But the low tuition charges and low borrowing rates at community colleges make it difficult to even postulate that student loans could potentially drive tuition increases at community colleges.

A potential natural experiment (in which a change is introduced to a system unexpectedly) could have been the short-lived credit tightening of parent PLUS loans, which hit some historically black colleges hard. Students who could no longer borrow the full cost of attendance had to scramble to find other funding, which put pressure on colleges to find additional money for students. But the credit changes have partially been reversed before colleges had to make long-term decisions about pricing.

I’m not too concerned about student loans driving tuition increases at the vast majority of institutions. I think the Bennett Hypothesis is likely the strongest (meaning a modest relationship between loans and tuition) at the most selective undergraduate institutions and most graduate programs, as loan amounts can be substantial and access to credit is typically good. But, without a way to identify variations in loan availability across similar institutions, that will remain a postulation.

[NOTE (7/7/15): Since this piece was initially posted, more research has come out on the topic. See this updated blog post for my most up-to-date take.

Analyzing the New Cohort Default Rate Data

The U.S. Department of Education today released cohort default rates (CDR) by college, which reflects the percentage of students who default on their loans within three years of entering repayment. This is a big deal for colleges, as any college that had a CDR of more than 30% for three consecutive years could lose its federal financial aid eligibility. I analyzed what we can learn from CDRs—a limited amount—in a blog post earlier this week.

And then things got interesting in Washington. The Department of Education put out a release yesterday noting that some students with loans from multiple servicers (known as “split servicers”) were current on some loans and defaulting on others. In this release, ED noted that the split servicer students were being dropped from CDRs over the last three years—but only if a college was close to the eligibility threshold. This led many to question whether ED was serious about using CDRs as an accountability tool, as well as trying to glean implications for the upcoming college ratings system.

The summary data for cohort default rates by year and sector is available here, and shows a decline from a 14.7% default rate in Fiscal Year 2010 to 13.7% in FY 2011. Default rates in each major sector of higher education also fell, led by a decline from 21.8% to 19.1% in the for-profit sector. However, a comparison of the FY 2009 and 2010 data in this release with the FY 2009 and 2010 data in last year’s release shows no changes from last year–before the split servicer change was adopted. Something doesn’t seem to be right there.

Twenty-one colleges are subject to sanctions under the new CDRs, all but one of which (Ventura Adult and Continuing Education) are for-profit. Most of the colleges subject to sanctions are small beauty or cosmetology institutions and reflect a very small percentage of total enrollment. We don’t know how many other colleges would have crossed over 30%, if not for the split servicer changes.

This year’s data show some very fortunate colleges. Among colleges with a sufficiently high participation rate, six institutions had CDRs of between 29 and 29.9 percent after being over 30% in the previous two years. They are led by Paris Junior College, with a 29.9% CDR in FY 2011 after being over 40% in the previous years. Other colleges weren’t so lucky. For example, the Aviation Institute of Maintenance was at 38.9% in FY 2009, 36.1% in FY 2010, and improved to 31.1% to 2011—but is still subject to sanctions.

FY 2011 CDRs, FY 2009 & 2010 above 30%
Name FY 2011 FY 2010 FY 2009
SEARCY BEAUTY COLLEGE 9.3 30.7 38.2
NEW CONCEPT MASSAGE AND BEAUTY SCHOOL 9.7 30.1 35.2
UNIVERSITY OF ANTELOPE VALLEY 12 31.8 30.6
PAUL MITCHELL THE SCHOOL ESCANABA 12.1 40 68.7
SAFFORD COLLEGE OF BEAUTY CULTURE 13.1 36.8 36.3
COMMUNITY CHRISTIAN COLLEGE 13.9 33.3 38.8
UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERNMOST FLORIDA 14.6 30.8 35.1
SOUTHWEST UNIVERSITY AT EL PASO 15.5 36.1 37.5
CENTRO DE ESTUDIOS MULTIDISCIPLINARIOS 15.6 39.2 50.9
VALLEY COLLEGE 17.2 36.9 32.7
AMERICAN BROADCASTING SCHOOL 17.5 30.8 44.6
SUMMIT COLLEGE 17.6 30.9 30.5
VALLEY COLLEGE 19.4 56.5 37.5
AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF PUERTO RICO 21 31.2 36.6
BRYAN UNIVERSITY 21.1 30.2 30.4
SOUTH CENTRAL CAREER CENTER 22 32.6 35.1
PAUL MITCHELL THE SCHOOL ARKANSAS 22 37.5 30
D-JAY’S SCHOOL OF BEAUTY, ARTS & SCIENCES 22.2 37.5 41.9
PAUL MITCHELL THE SCHOOL GREAT LAKES 22.2 34.6 33.9
KILGORE COLLEGE 22.7 30.2 33.5
ANTONELLI COLLEGE 22.8 33 35.1
OLD TOWN BARBER COLLEGE 23 37.7 40
OZARKA COLLEGE 23.1 41.8 35
TESST COLLEGE OF TECHNOLOGY 23.4 33.7 32
CENTURA COLLEGE 23.7 32 35
RUST COLLEGE 23.7 32 31.6
CARSON CITY BEAUTY ACADEMY 23.8 31.8 43.3
BACONE COLLEGE 24.1 32 30
KAPLAN CAREER INSTITUTE 24.1 32.5 33.6
TECHNICAL CAREER INSTITUTES 24.3 38.8 34.9
VICTOR VALLEY COMMUNITY COLLEGE 24.6 32.6 31
SOUTHWESTERN CHRISTIAN COLLEGE 24.6 32.7 43.1
AMERICAN BEAUTY ACADEMY 24.8 35.7 34.6
CENTURA COLLEGE 24.8 31.5 34.7
DENMARK TECHNICAL COLLEGE 25 30.8 31.6
MILAN INSTITUTE OF COSMETOLOGY 25 32.4 41.5
TREND BARBER COLLEGE 25 43.5 60.5
JACKSONVILLE BEAUTY INSTITUTE 25.2 33.3 41.7
CONCEPT COLLEGE OF COSMETOLOGY 25.3 41.5 34.2
EASTERN OKLAHOMA STATE COLLEGE 25.4 31.8 30
OTERO JUNIOR COLLEGE 25.5 34.2 38.2
LANGSTON UNIVERSITY 25.5 32.5 32.9
COLLEGEAMERICA DENVER 25.5 34.8 38.3
AVIATION INSTITUTE OF MAINTENANCE 25.8 36.9 39.6
EMPLOYMENT SOLUTIONS 26 38.5 30
SANFORD-BROWN COLLEGE 26.2 31.6 31.5
CAMBRIDGE INSTITUTE OF ALLIED HEALTH AND TECHNOLOGY 26.6 33.3 35
ANTELOPE VALLEY COLLEGE 26.9 32.6 33.2
UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS COMMUNITY COLLEGE AT BATESVILLE 26.9 30.6 31.6
CC’S COSMETOLOGY COLLEGE 27.4 40.3 35.9
MILWAUKEE CAREER COLLEGE 27.6 34.1 32.7
NTMA TRAINING CENTERS OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA 27.8 32.1 34.2
CONCORDIA COLLEGE ALABAMA 27.9 31.4 37.5
NORTH AMERICAN TRADE SCHOOLS 28 31 31.1
AVIATION INSTITUTE OF MAINTENANCE 28.1 37.9 39.8
MEDIATECH INSTITUTE 28.4 33.3 33.3
SEBRING CAREER SCHOOLS 29 54.1 57.5
MOHAVE COMMUNITY COLLEGE 29.3 32.7 36.7
CHERYL FELL’S SCHOOL OF BUSINESS 29.4 38 31.2
AVIATION INSTITUTE OF MAINTENANCE 29.4 36.1 38.9
KLAMATH COMMUNITY COLLEGE 29.4 33 31.7
PARIS JUNIOR COLLEGE 29.9 40.7 41.5
STYLEMASTERS COLLEGE OF HAIR DESIGN 30.6 46.6 37
LASSEN COLLEGE 30.8 37.1 37.7
AVIATION INSTITUTE OF MAINTENANCE 31.1 37.5 32.2
CHARLESTON SCHOOL OF BEAUTY CULTURE 31.7 37.5 34
PALLADIUM TECHNICAL ACADEMY 33 39.4 46.2
L T INTERNATIONAL BEAUTY SCHOOL 38.1 37.7 38
TIDEWATER TECH 38.6 42.7 55
JAY’S TECHNICAL INSTITUTE 40.6 53.8 51.5
OHIO STATE COLLEGE OF BARBER STYLING 41.1 37.8 32.9
MEMPHIS INSTITUTE OF BARBERING 44.7 47.2 44.4
FLORIDA BARBER ACADEMY 46.5 41.7 32.5
SAN DIEGO COLLEGE 49.3 34 35.7

Fully 35 colleges with sufficient participation rates had CDRs between 29.0% and 29.9% in FY 2011, including a mix of small for-profit colleges, HBCUs, and community colleges. The University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, a designated minority-serving institution, has had CDRs of 29.9%, 29.2%, and 29.8% in the last three years. Mt. San Jacinto College and Harris-Stowe State University also had CDRs just under 30% in each of the last three years. Only 19 colleges, representing a mix of institutional types, had CDRs between 30.0% and 30.9%. This includes Murray State College in Oklahoma, which was at 30.0% in FY 2011, 28.9% in FY 2010, and 31.1% in FY 2009. Forty-three colleges were between 28.0% and 28.9%.

FY 2011 CDRs between 29 and 31 percent
Name FY 2011 FY 2010 FY 2009
OHIO TECHNICAL COLLEGE 29 24.1 21.3
DAYMAR COLLEGE 29 28.9 46.2
SEBRING CAREER SCHOOLS 29 54.1 57.5
L’ESPRIT ACADEMY 29.1 0 0
BLACK RIVER TECHNICAL COLLEGE 29.1 27.9 26.6
NEW SCHOOL OF RADIO & TELEVISION 29.1 26.2 28.1
LOUISBURG COLLEGE 29.2 28.7 24.7
MOHAVE COMMUNITY COLLEGE 29.3 32.7 36.7
HARRIS SCHOOL OF BUSINESS 29.3 25.6 17.8
INTELLITEC MEDICAL INSTITUTE 29.3 27.1 24.7
GALLIPOLIS CAREER COLLEGE 29.3 33.9 29.4
CHERYL FELL’S SCHOOL OF BUSINESS 29.4 38 31.2
COLLEGE OF THE SISKIYOUS 29.4 27.7 27.1
AVIATION INSTITUTE OF MAINTENANCE 29.4 36.1 38.9
KLAMATH COMMUNITY COLLEGE 29.4 33 31.7
COLORLAB ACADEMY OF HAIR, THE 29.4 24.3 12.5
DIGRIGOLI SCHOOL OF COSMETOLOGY 29.4 21.6 23.5
VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF MASSAGE 29.4 14.8 22
WASHINGTON COUNTY COMMUNITY COLLEGE 29.5 20.5 12.7
MT. SAN JACINTO COLLEGE 29.5 29.9 26.5
WEST TENNESSEE BUSINESS COLLEGE 29.5 32.6 21.8
BRITTANY BEAUTY SCHOOL 29.5 31.9 26.4
JOHN PAOLO’S XTREME BEAUTY INSTITUTE, GOLDWELL PRODUCTS ARTISTRY 29.5 25 0
HARRIS – STOWE STATE UNIVERSITY 29.6 27.9 26.5
CARIBBEAN UNIVERSITY 29.6 29.9 29.9
GUILFORD TECHNICAL COMMUNITY COLLEGE 29.7 26 19
WARREN COUNTY CAREER CENTER 29.7 22.9 25
STARK STATE COLLEGE 29.7 24.5 17.2
STRAND COLLEGE OF HAIR DESIGN 29.7 17.9 11.1
INDEPENDENCE COLLEGE OF COSMETOLOGY 29.8 21.6 18.4
FRANK PHILLIPS COLLEGE 29.8 25.2 29.1
MEDICAL ARTS SCHOOL (THE) 29.8 21.6 13.1
NEW MEXICO JUNIOR COLLEGE 29.8 24.1 23.1
PARIS JUNIOR COLLEGE 29.9 40.7 41.5
UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS AT PINE BLUFF 29.9 29.2 29.8
MURRAY STATE COLLEGE 30 28.9 31.1
JARVIS CHRISTIAN COLLEGE 30 36.5 29.3
BUSINESS INDUSTRIAL RESOURCES 30.1 19.1 20.9
LONG BEACH CITY COLLEGE 30.1 24.2 19
EASTERN GATEWAY COMMUNITY COLLEGE 30.1 0 0
MARTIN UNIVERSITY 30.2 19.8 18.7
LANE COMMUNITY COLLEGE 30.2 30.6 19.5
CAREER QUEST LEARNING CENTER 30.2 24.1 16.1
NIGHTINGALE COLLEGE 30.3 25 16.6
EMPIRE BEAUTY SCHOOL 30.4 31.6 25.2
NATIONAL ACADEMY OF BEAUTY ARTS 30.4 20.6 5.6
BAR PALMA BEAUTY CAREERS ACADEMY 30.5 35.8 26.8
WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY – PARKERSBURG 30.5 25.8 24.1
ENSACOLA SCHOOL OF MASSAGE THERAPY & HEALTH CAREERS 30.5 17.3 10
PROFESSIONAL MASSAGE TRAINING CENTER 30.6 14.8 13
UNIVERSAL THERAPEUTIC MASSAGE INSTITUTE 30.6 23.5 17.2
STYLEMASTERS COLLEGE OF HAIR DESIGN 30.6 46.6 37
CCI TRAINING CENTER 30.8 26.5 26.7
INSTITUTE OF AUDIO RESEARCH 30.8 29.7 17
LASSEN COLLEGE 30.8 37.1 37.7
KAPLAN CAREER INSTITUTE 30.8 34.6 29.7
TRANSFORMED BARBER AND COSMETOLOGY ACADEMY 30.9 66.6 0
MAYSVILLE COMMUNITY AND TECHNICAL COLLEGE 30.9 26.4 24.5
TRI-COUNTY TECHNICAL COLLEGE 30.9 27.2 16.1

Some of the larger for-profits fared better, potentially due to split servicers. The University of Phoenix’s CDR was 19.0% in FY 2011, down from 26.0% in FY 2010 and 26.4%. DeVry University was at 18.5% in FY 2011, down from 23.4% in FY 2010 and 24.1% in FY 2009. ITT Technical Institute also improved, going from 33.3% in FY 2009 to 28.6% and then 22.4% this year. (Everest College disaggregates its data by campus, but the results are similar.)

The CDR data are not without controversy, but they are an important accountability tool going forward. It will be interesting to see whether and how these data will be used in the draft Postsecondary Institution Ratings System later this fall.

Building a Better Student Loan Default Measure

Student loan default rates have been a hot political topic as of late given increased accountability pressures at the federal level. Currently, colleges can lose access to all federal financial aid (grants as well as loans) if more than 25% of students defaulted on their loans within two years of leaving college for three consecutive cohorts. Starting later this year, the measure used will be the default rate within three years of leaving college, and the cutoff for federal eligibility will rise to 30%. (Colleges can appeal this result if there are relatively few borrowers.)

But few students should ever have to default on their loans given the availability of various income-based repayment (IBR) plans. (PLUS loans typically aren’t eligible for income-based repayment, but their default rates oddly aren’t tracked and aren’t used for accountability purposes.) If a former student enrolled in IBR falls on tough times, his or her monthly payment will go down—potentially to zero if income is less than 150% of the federal poverty line. As a result, savvy colleges should be encouraging their students to enroll in IBR in order to reduce default rates.

And more students are enrolling in IBR. Jason Delisle at the New America Foundation analyzed new Federal Student Aid data out this week that showed that the number of students in IBR doubled from 950,000 to 1.9 million in the last year while outstanding loan balances went from $52.2 billion to $101.0 billion. The federal government’s total Direct Loan portfolio increased from $361.3 billion to $464.3 billion in the last year, meaning that IBR was responsible for nearly half of the increase in loan dollars.

This shift to IBR means that the federal government needs to consider new options for holding colleges accountable for their outcomes. Some options include:

(1) Using a longer default window. The “standard” loan repayment plan is ten years, but defaults are only tracked for three years. A longer window wouldn’t give an accurate picture of outcomes if more students enroll in IBR, but it would provide useful information on students who expect to do well enough after college that standard payments will be a better deal than IBR. This probably requires replacement of the creaky National Student Loan Data System, which may not be able to handle that many more data requests.

(2) Look at the percentage of students who don’t pay anything under IBR. This would measure the percentage of students making more than 150% of the poverty line, or about $23,000 per year for a former borrower with one other family member. Even with the woeful salaries in many public service jobs (such as teaching), they’ll likely have to pay something here.

(3) Look at the total amount repaid compared to the amount borrowed. If the goal is to make sure the federal government gets its money back, a measure of the percentage of funds repaid might be useful. Colleges could even be held accountable for part of the unpaid amount if desired.

As the Department of Education continues to develop draft college ratings (to come out later this fall), they are hopefully having these types of conversations when considering outcome measures. I hope this piece sparks a conversation about potential loan default or repayment measures that can improve upon the currently inadequate measure, so please offer your suggestions as comments below.

The Ticking Student Loan Time Bomb: The Forgiveness Tax

What to do about the rising amount of student loan debt has recently taken center stage in domestic policy discussions, as the average student who completes a bachelor’s degree and takes out debt now has a student loan burden of around $30,000. Media reports love focusing on those with much larger amounts of debt—who tend to either have graduate degrees or went to colleges with high costs of attendance—but these students are a minority. The past week has seen proposals by members of Congress and President Obama to reduce the burden on those who leave college with debt. Below are summaries of the three main proposals and what they mean for students and taxpayers.

Proposal 1: President Obama’s extension of more generous income-based repayment (IBR) terms. He signed an executive order authorizing the Department of Education to enter the federal rulemaking process in order to extend IBR terms that apply to current Direct Loan borrowers retroactively for those who borrowed before 2007 or those who have not borrowed since 2011. Once approved (no sooner than 2015), borrowers could pay 10% of their discretionary income over 20 years instead of 15%. This proposal has gained support from many in the higher education community, but there are concerns about costs and whether the President has the authority to act without Congressional approval.

Proposal 2: Sen. Warren (D-MA)’s proposal to refinance student loans. She has introduced multiple proposals to lower interest rates, including one to lower rates to 0.75% (which I called “a folly”). Her most recent proposal would allow students to refinance federal and some private loans at the current subsidized Stafford loan interest rate (3.86%). President Obama endorsed the plan when he signed his executive order, but the likelihood of the plan passing is fairly low. It is expected to cost about $55 billion (a number highly dependent on how many borrowers actually refinance), and is paid for by a surtax on millionaires. While passing the Democrat-controlled Senate is possible, it is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled House.

Proposal 3: Sen. Warner (R-VA)’s and Thune (R-SD)’s proposal to allow employers to contribute pre-tax dollars to help repay employees’ loans. This proposal came as a surprise, particularly the provision that borrowers would have to refinance in the private market before participating in the program. No cost information is currently available to the best of my knowledge, and this proposal is unlikely to pass.

While all three of these proposals could help at least some borrowers in the short run, none of them do anything to affect the main reason behind the growth in student loans: the rising cost of college. If anything, making it easier to repay loans has the potential to increase college costs as colleges’ incentives to reduce costs are decreased. This fits in with the “Bennett Hypothesis,” in which increases in federal financial aid are associated with increased costs. (Evidence to support the hypothesis is mixed.)

Making IBR programs more generous could have serious long-run implications for millions of students. Under current law, students in IBR programs (excluding those in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program) will face a tax bill for any balance forgiven at the end of the loan (typically 10-25 years). President Obama did not mention that when signing the executive order, even though it is likely that many borrowers will face a substantial tax burden when their loan is forgiven. If a remaining balance of $30,000 is forgiven (on the low end of the likely distribution), the borrower can face a tax burden of $10,000.

The issue of the forgiveness tax has not yet reached center stage, but will do so in the next few years as the first wave of IBR borrowers begin to reach the end of the repayment period. Congress needs to clarify whether the forgiveness tax will remain in place in order to give borrowers as much information as possible. Congress can choose to eliminate the tax, but the loss of revenue must be offset elsewhere in the federal budget through spending cuts or tax increases. Or they can keep the tax, but could consider spreading out the burden over multiple years.

Thinking about the long-term implications of loan forgiveness under IBR is not sexy, and it is not a topic that will resonate with many voters at this point in time. But politicians need to consider the ticking time bomb and how to best defuse it before more Americans enroll in IBR.

Senator Warren’s Interest Rate Follies

First-term Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is a darling of the progressive Left, and she has been mentioned as a possible Presidential candidate in 2016 (although she has stated she’s not running). One of the ways she has gained support with the Democratic base is through her many public statements about the federal government’s purported profit on student loans, which she cites to be $51 billion in Fiscal Year 2013. Given the huge profit, she has introduced legislation to drop interest rates to the overnight borrowing rate at the Federal Reserve: 0.75%.

Her argument suffers from one main problem: student loans carry risk for the federal government. (She made my 2013 not-top-ten list for this reason.) The Congressional Budget Office, where the $51 billion estimate came from, uses federal borrowing costs as a discount rate. This discount rate is very low, in part because the federal government is viewed as very unlikely to default (even with the possibility of debt ceiling shenanigans). As a result, numerous groups have suggested the use of fair-value accounting, in which the risk of default is considered. Indeed, the Washington Post’s fact-checking blog gave Senator Warren’s statement of a $51 billion profit “two Pinocchios” because it did not consider fair-value accounting.

[On Twitter, the wonderful Libby Nelson notes that my explanation of fair-value accounting vs. federal regulations is unclear. Here is a nice CBO summary of the different methods.]

With the debate over student loan profits and accounting methods as a backdrop, the release of Friday’s Government Accountability Office report on federal student loans was eagerly anticipated in the higher education community. The title of the report succinctly summarizes the rest of the document: “Borrower Interest Rates Cannot Be Set in Advance to Precisely and Consistently Balance Federal Revenues and Costs.” This resulted in a few howlers from policy analysts, including this gem from Matt Chingos at Brookings:

Karen Weise at Bloomberg was a little more diplomatic with her summary of the report:

The report itself is fairly dry, but it does emphasize something that should be kept in mind when considering the costs of student loan programs. Due to the growing prevalence of extended payment plans, increased rates of income-based repayment plan usage, and the continued risk of defaults, the actual amount of the subsidy or cost on student loans will not be known for 40 years after disbursement.  Each of these individual variables could also have a large effect on the long-run subsidy or cost; for example, a higher-than-expected rate of income-based repayment participation could increase program costs.

The following paragraph on pages 18 and 19 sums up a key point of the report:

“As of the end of fiscal year 2013, it is estimated that the government will generate about $66 billion in subsidy income from the 2007 to 2012 loan cohorts as a group. However, current estimates for this group of loan cohorts are based predominantly on forecasted cash flow data derived from assumptions about future loan performance. As more information on actual cash flows for these loans becomes available, subsidy cost estimates will change. As a result, it is unclear whether these loan cohorts will ultimately generate subsidy income, as currently estimated, or whether they will result in subsidy costs to the government. This will not be known with certainty until all cash flows have been recorded after loans have been repaid or discharged—which may be as many as 40 years from when the loans were originally disbursed.”

I read this paragraph as providing possible evidence that interest rates may have been set relatively high compared to the federal cost of borrowing. (Recall that the interest rates for subsidized Stafford loans declined from 6.8% in 2007 to 3.4% in 2011, while Treasury rates were at historic lows.) The spread between the 10-year Treasury yield in May versus the interest rate on subsidized Stafford loans has been the following for the past seven years:

Year Stafford (pct) 10-yr T-note (pct) Spread (pct)
2007 6.8 4.75 2.05
2008 6.0 3.88 2.12
2009 5.6 3.29 2.31
2010 4.5 3.42 1.08
2011 3.4 3.17 0.23
2012 3.4 1.80 1.60
2013 3.86 1.93 1.93

This interest rate spread is statutorily set at 2.05% for subsidized Stafford loans in the future, roughly the long-run average. So while future GAO reports a few years after disbursement may find similar results, what we’ll all be waiting for is longer-term data to see if the estimates hold true. The federal government doesn’t necessarily have a great history of long-run cost projections, so I’m expecting this spread to disappear over time. (And keep in mind this report doesn’t fully account for risk.)

Yet Senator Warren and eight other Democrats released a press release on Friday afternoon with the headline of “Democratic Senators Highlight Obscene Government Profits Off Student Loan Program.” They focused entirely on the initial projection of a $66 billion profit over five years and entirely ignored the long-run uncertainty highlighted by the GAO. This press release is a great example of selecting only the most favored parts of a report, while ignoring other important details along the way. Again, the Twittersphere (myself included) expressed its thoughts:

On a more fundamental note, I think that Senator Warren and colleagues are misguided in their efforts to continue lowering student loan interest rates. Given the reality that higher education funding is a zero-sum game, I would much rather see funds used to support the Pell Grant, work-study, and other upfront sources of aid for students than slightly lower loan payments after students have already left college. (The same argument holds against tax credits.) Senator Warren may not be running for President (yet), but she’s in the running for my 2014 not-top-ten list.

Will Holding Colleges Accountable for Default Rates be Effective?

As student loan debt continues to climb and Congress enters a midterm election year, three Democrats in the United States Senate (Reed, Durbin, and Warren) recently introduced a piece of legislation designed to hold certain types of colleges and universities accountable for their students’ loan default rates. If enacted, the bill would require colleges to pay a fine of a percentage of its students’ total defaulted loans to the Department of Education, part of which would be used to help borrowers avoid future defaults and the other part would go to a fund to help support the Pell Grant in case of any future funding shortfalls.

The proposed fines are the following:

  • 5% fine if the most recent cohort default rate (CDR) over three years is 15-20%
  • 10% if CDR is 20-25%
  • 15% if CDR is 25-30%
  • 20% is CDR is 30%+

As an example of what these fines could mean, consider their potential implications for the University of Phoenix’s online division. Data from the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) show that Phoenix collected roughly $1.4 billion in student loan revenue during the 2011-12 academic year, while 34.4% of students who took out loans defaulted in a three-year period. This default rate would place them in the 20% fine category, resulting in a fine of roughly $100 million per year based on an estimated $500 million per year in defaulted loans. This would represent roughly four percent of their total tuition revenue ($2.7 billion) in the 2011-12 academic year—which is far from a trivial sum.

Daniel Luzer on Washington Monthly’s College Guide blog (where many of my pieces are cross-posted) notes some of the potential positives of this legislation, including encouraging colleges to spend more time and energy counseling students and providing more information about financial aid.

But, in order for this legislation to actually benefit students, three things must happen:

(1) Some colleges must actually be affected by the legislation. The sanctions in the bill would not apply to community colleges, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and likely other colleges designated as minority-serving institutions. This excludes a substantial number of nonprofit institutions, many of which have higher default rates. A provision in the bill excludes colleges at which fewer than 25% of students take out federal loans, which further diminishes the number of nonprofit institutions on the list.

But even if a college is not exempt from the legislation, it is still possible to avoid fines if default rates are over 15%. The legislation grants the Secretary of Education the authority to grant waivers, which would be the first time the Secretary has ever been granted that authority. (Kidding!) Colleges can submit remediation plans in order to avoid or reduce fines. It will be interesting to see the reaction to the first waiver request, as colleges’ lobbying efforts tend to be well-organized.

A more interesting case will involve the for-profit sector. Given the three Senators’ general distrust of for-profit institutions, it would not surprise me if nearly all of the colleges facing fines are proprietary in nature. But the way the bill is targeted seems to be similar to previous attempts at gainful employment legislation, which have been the subject of massive amounts of litigation. Expect this proposal to face litigation if it ever became law.

(2) Colleges must be able to improve their financial aid offices without restricting students’ access to financial aid. One of the underlying premises of this legislation is that financial aid offices are not helping students make sound financial decisions that help them complete college. Aid administrators would likely disagree with that statement, although additional resources targeted toward financial counseling may be beneficial.

Another concern is that in order to reduce default rates, aid offices will not offer students loans if they perceive the student as having a higher risk of default. While there is a prohibition written into the legislation against denying loans based on the perceived risk of default, this would be extremely difficult to prove and enforce. Colleges are not required to offer students the full amount of loans available in the initial aid package, and indeed some community colleges decline to offer any federal loans to their students. Some colleges would like more authority to limit loan offers to students, and this legislation could reduce access to credit for needy students.

(3) The legislation must adequately address students who transfer. If a student takes out loans while attending multiple institutions, would each college be held responsible for a student’s default—even if most of the debt was at one institution? Consider a student who attends a regional public university for one year and takes out the maximum in subsidized Stafford loans ($3,500). She then transfers to an expensive private college and accrues an additional $30,000 in debt before graduating. If she defaults on her principal of $33,500, should both colleges be held responsible? That is unclear at this point.

So would holding colleges accountable for default rates (in the method of this legislation) help students? I’m skeptical because I don’t see many colleges actually facing sanctions, nor do I see the fines being particularly effective. This is one of those ideas that is great in theory, but may not work as well in practice.

I don’t think this legislation is likely to become law in its current form, but it’s worth keeping an eye on as the Department of Education works to develop the Postsecondary Institution Rating System (PIRS). Many of the potential discussions this legislation raises will certainly come up again once the draft ratings are released.

Does This Explain Opposition to Market-Based Interest Rates?

As of this writing, it appears that the U.S. Senate has finally reached an agreement on student loan interest rates after subsidized Stafford rates doubled from 3.4% to 6.8% on July 1. The general terms of the agreement are similar to what President Obama proposed in his FY 2014 budget and what the House of Representatives agreed to back in June, with some compromises on each side.

The big difference between current law and the Senate agreement is that interest rates for nearly all student loans will be tied to the 10-year Treasury rate, which currently sits at about 2.5%.  (Undergraduates would pay a 2.05% premium above the Treasury rate on Stafford loans to account for program costs and the risk of offering the loans.) However, the Treasury rate is expected to increase to 5.6% by 2016, pushing the interest rate for undergraduates to 7.65% from less than 5%. The plan includes a cap at 8.25%, which may be reached according to the CBO report.

The Senate agreement is not without its critics, particularly on the political Left. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and a self-described “socialist,” criticized the plan as “dangerous” in an article in The Hill. His criticism lies in the fact that interest rates can rise well above the current 6.8% over time, a very real concern given the interest rate projections. While the plan is expected to pass the Senate (and the House), some other Senate Democrats will likely vote no as well.

At this point in the great interest rate debate, I have to wonder if there is another reason some politicians oppose market-based interest rates. Tying student loan interest rates to the 10-year Treasury note directly connects students’ future payments to the cost of federal borrowing. And that cost of federal borrowing is influenced by the federal government’s fiscal policy.

This connection between federal borrowing and student loan rates could potentially have the following repercussions. If loans are tied to Treasury notes—and there is no way to fix the rate as has been done for the past seven years—students should have an incentive to push for federal policies which lower the federal government’s cost of borrowing. (With the decline in home ownership rates among younger adults, fewer 20- and 30-somethings have mortgages, which are affected by federal borrowing costs.)

The policy that best reduces the cost of borrowing is a balanced budget, which reduces the need for additional borrowing. The passage of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, which reduced the budget deficit through a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts, had the effect of driving down long-term interest rates. (For more on this, I highly recommend reading Bob Woodward’s Maestro about Alan Greenspan’s role in the policy discussions.)

My question to readers is whether you think that some politicians may oppose market-based interest rates because more young adults may place pressure on Congress to find some legislative solution to balance the budget—although the solutions certainly vary by political persuasion. Say it’s 2016 and undergraduate Stafford rates are 7.5%, with hitting the 8.25% cap becoming more likely. Could we see student advocacy organizations pushing for a balanced budget to bring down interest rates? I don’t know how many people will think this way, but it’s something to consider.

The Great Student Loan Interest Rate Debate

As I write this post, the House of Representatives is currently debating the future of student loan interest rates. Under current law, the rates on subsidized Stafford loans for undergraduates (the rates which get the most attention) will double on July 1 from 3.4% to 6.8% without Congressional action. The same debate was held last year under the same parameters, but Congress and the President agreed to extend interest rates for an additional year.

There have been a wide range of proposals put forth regarding plans to address the interest rate cliff, an outstanding summary of which was written by Libby Nelson in Inside Higher Ed. (In addition to the plans listed in that article, some Senate Democrats have supported a two-year extension to current law in order to allow for the Higher Education Act to be reauthorized.) Most proposals move to tie interest rates to the market—represented here by borrowing costs for the federal government—but the plans vary widely in their ideas of what the relevant market should be.

Proposals put forth by the Obama Administration and House and Senate Republicans all tie interest rates to long-term Treasury bills, but vary in their other features. (I’ve previously written on the Obama Administration’s proposal.) While the President has threatened to veto the common House GOP proposal over certain aspects, there is enough common ground here to reach an agreement.

However, proposals put forth by certain Democratic senators, particular Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, confuse long-term lending risks with short-term credit markets. She has proposed tying student loan interest rates (which are repaid for at least ten years once a student leaves college) to the interest rate the Federal Reserve charges banks for very short-term borrowing. Jason Delisle of the New America Foundation, hardly a bastion of conservatism, crushes her argument in a great piece of writing. He notes the confusion between short-term and long-term rates, as well as accounting for the probability of default. I would also note that if Congress wishes to help make college more affordable, it’s a better idea to give the funds upfront to students than to lower interest rates later on–long after the enrollment decisions have been made.

The federal government should move toward some sort of a market-based strategy for interest rates with certain student protections. This would allow for the costs of student loans to be more adequately reflected in the federal budget. (And if interest rates get too high, maybe it’s a reminder for Congress and the President to produce a balanced budget!) With that being said, I would still expect to see a short-term extension of the current interest rates as Congress may end up deadlocked on this issue until the Higher Education Act is reauthorized.