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.

The Challenges Facing New York’s Tuition-Free College Program

Although tuition-free public college will not become a federal policy anytime soon, more states and local communities are considering different variations of free college. There are nearly 200 active college promise or free college programs in the United States, with two states (Arkansas and New York) enacting tuition-free programs in recent weeks.

New York’s Excelsior Scholarship program has garnered quite a bit of attention because it covers students at four-year colleges (most larger programs are limited to less-expensive two-year colleges), because of the conditions attached, and because New York governor Andrew Cuomo is likely to run for president in 2020. Yet the ambitious program (the legislation text starts on page 142 of this .pdf) also has to overcome a number of challenges in order to be truly effective. I discuss three of the key challenges with this program below.

Challenge 1: Will scholarship funds be available to all qualified students? The budget includes $163 million in funding for the program, which is probably far below the amount of money needed to fund all students. Judith Scott-Clayton of Teachers College estimated that an earlier version of the program could cost about $482 million per year. Even requirements that students complete 30 credits per year and clawbacks for students who leave the state after graduation (more on that later) may not bring the cost down enough—particularly if the program is successful in increasing enrollment at public colleges. The budget has a provision that allows awards to be cut or allocated via lottery if funds run short, which is a distinct possibility if the state faces another recession. Needless to say, this would be a PR nightmare for the state.

Challenge 2: Will colleges use fees as a tuition substitute? A full-tuition scholarship sounds great, but students and their families often forget about fees. Right now, fees are a sizable portion of direct educational prices. For example, at SUNY-Albany, tuition is $6,470 and fees are $2,793, while Hostos Community College charges $4,800 in tuition per year for a full-time student alongside $406 in fees. Since the scholarship only covers tuition, the state may pressure colleges to increase fees in an effort to reduce program costs. This happened in Massachusetts for years and still happens in Georgia, both states with large merit-based grant aid programs. Over time, it is quite possible that the value of the grant fails to keep up with inflation as a result—particularly if the state shifts funding from appropriations to student aid and colleges scramble for another revenue source.

Challenge 3: Will the state be able to manage a large “groan” program? Perhaps the most controversial portion of New York’s program is the requirement that students must live and work in the state after college for the same number of years that they received the grant; if they fail to do so, the grant converts to a loan (also known as a “groan” to financial aid wonks). Many people have raised concerns about the fairness of this idea, but here I’ll touch on the logistics of the program. Can the state of New York track students after graduation and see where they both live and work? Will they feel pressures to exempt students who live out of state but work in New York and pay state income taxes? What will the terms of the converted loans look like? There are a lot of unanswered questions here, but it is clear that the state must invest in a larger student loan agency in order to manage this complex of a program.

As Governor Cuomo prepares for a likely presidential bid in 2020, he is counting on the tuition-free college proposal to be one of his signature policy ideas. Some of the biggest concerns with this legislation may take years to develop, but even a period of two or three years may be enough to see whether the program can work effectively around some of the significant concerns noted here.

How Popular Was the IRS Data Retrieval Tool?

The financial aid application season for the 2017-18 academic year started out on a high note for current and prospective students. Thanks to the adoption of “prior prior year” or “early FAFSA,” students could file the FAFSA beginning October 1 instead of the following January 1 for the 2017-18 academic year. Students took advantage of this change in large numbers, with about 5.4 million students completing the FAFSA before the previous opening date of January 1.

But FAFSA filing hit a significant roadblock in early March when the federal government quietly pulled access to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), which allowed students to quickly and seamlessly transfer their tax records from the IRS to the FAFSA. The tool was down for nearly a week before the IRS issued a statement explaining that the site had been taken offline due to security concerns—and now it looks like the Data Retrieval Tool will be down until next fall at the earliest. Students can still complete the FAFSA by inputting information from their 2015 tax returns, but this is an extra hurdle for many students to jump.

It is possible that the DRT outage is already affecting FAFSA filing rates. Nick Hillman of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (one of the best higher ed finance researchers out there) and his sharp grad students Valerie Crespin-Trujillo and Ellie Bruckner) have been tracking FAFSA filing trends among high school students since the start of this application cycle. Their latest look at filing trends (which they update every Friday) shows the following, which suggests a possible dip due to the DRT outage.

One question that hasn’t been addressed yet is how many students were actually using the DRT when it was pulled. Unlike the great data that Federal Student Aid makes available on FAFSA filing trends, far less data are available on DRT usage. But I was able to find two data points that provide some insights about how many FAFSA filers used the DRT. The first data point came from Federal Student Aid’s 2016 annual financial report, which listed the DRT as a priority for the department. As the highlighted text below shows, about half of all applicants who filed taxes used the DRT in the 2014-15 filing season.

A tidbit of more recent data comes from a presentation that Federal Student Aid made to a conference of financial aid professionals last fall. As shown below, 56% of the 2.2 million FAFSA filers in October 2016 used the DRT. Early FAFSA filers may have different characteristics than filers across the whole application cycle, but this again shows the popularity of the DRT.

Another important group of students use the Data Retrieval Tool—students who are enrolling in income-driven repayment plans. These students have to certify their income on an annual basis (and a majority of borrowers already struggle to do this on time), which becomes more time-consuming without the DRT. It’s still possible for students to do by submitting documentation of income, but the loss of the DRT makes that a lengthier process. I was unable to find any information about DRT usage among people in income-driven repayment programs, but my gut instinct is that it’s a fairly high percentage of borrowers.

The bottom line here—the lengthy outage of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool doesn’t mean that students can’t apply for federal financial aid or income-driven student loan repayment programs. But it does create an additional roadblock for millions of students, their families, and financial aid offices to navigate. Only time will tell whether the DRT outage is associated with lower FAFSA or income-driven repayment filing rates, but a small negative effect seems plausible.

Thanks to Carlo Salerno of Strada Education for inspiring me to dig into the numbers. Twitter conversations can be useful, after all!

Should Part-Time Students Have Their Borrowing Limited?

One of the key higher education policy interests of Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) has been to limit student borrowing in an effort to help reduce rising student loan debt. I’ve written in the past about how “overborrowing” is not as big of a concern as students not borrowing enough for college, but there is one group of students that may actually benefit from not being able to take out the maximum allowed amount in student loans.

Currently, students who attend college part-time can borrow the same amount as full-time students as long as there is space in their financial aid package. This can be a concern for students, as it means that they can run out of federal loan eligibility before they complete a bachelor’s degree. Current federal loan limits are the following:

Year in college Dependent student Independent student
First $5,500 $9,500
Second $6,500 $10,500
Third $7,500 $12,500
Fourth and beyond $7,500 $12,500
Lifetime $31,000 $57,500

 

This equates to about four and a half years of borrowing at the maximum for dependent students and five years for independent students. Given that a sizable percentage of students complete a bachelor’s degree in more than five years, running out of loan eligibility before graduation can be a real concern for students. This is particularly true among students who begin at a community college, where tuition is relatively low compared to at a four-year college. If a student reasonably expects to take six years to complete a bachelor’s degree, then she and her financial aid office should have a conversation about how to best preserve her loan eligibility for when she needs it the most.

A fairly straightforward way to reduce the number of students who exhaust their loan eligibility would be to allow students to get a certain amount of money per credit hour. Students can currently receive a Pell Grant for up to 12 full-time equivalent semesters, with full-time defined as taking at least 12 credits. The current loan limit could be divided by 12 (roughly $2,600 per semester), or this could be done on a per-credit basis (perhaps $200 per credit) to recognize that students who take more classes need to work less.

A completely different proposal would allow students to use their student loan eligibility in any way they see fit. For example, dependent students could use their $31,000 in two years if desired—as long as they had space in their aid package. This idea of an education line of credit was raised by Jeb Bush in his short-lived presidential campaign, but it is unclear what Senator Alexander thinks of this proposal. At this point, it seems like the idea of limiting borrowing for part-time students at an individual college’s discretion is the most likely policy outcome.

How Much Did A Coding Error Affect Student Loan Repayment Rates?

Mistakes happen. I should know—I make more than my fair share of them (including on this blog). But some mistakes are a little more noticeable than others, such as when your mistake has been viewed more than a million times. That is what happened to the U.S. Department of Education recently, when they found a coding error in the popular College Scorecard website and dataset.

Here is a description of the coding error from the Department of Education’s announcement:

“Repayment rates measure the percentage of undergraduate borrowers who have not defaulted and who have repaid at least one dollar of their principal balance over a certain period of time (1, 3, 5, or 7 years after entering repayment). An error in the original college scorecard coding to calculate repayment rates led to the undercounting of some borrowers who had not reduced their loan balances by at least one dollar, and therefore inflated repayment rates for most institutions. The relative difference—that is, whether an institution fell above, about, or below average—was modest.  Over 90 percent of institutions on the College Scorecard tool did not change categories (i.e., above, about, or below average) from the previously published rates. However, in some cases, the nominal differences were significant.”

As soon as I learned about the error, I immediately started digging in to see how much it affected loan repayment rates. After both my trusty computer and I made a lot of noise trying to process the large files in a short period of time, I was able to come up with some top-level results. It turns out that the changes in loan repayment rates are very large. Three-year repayment rates fell from 61% to 41%, five-year repayment rates fell from 61% to 47%, and seven-year repayment rates fell from 66% to 57%. These changes were quite similar across sectors.

repay_fig1_jan17

Difference between corrected and previous loan repayment rates (pct).
Corrected Previous Difference N
All colleges
  3-year 41.0 61.0 -20.0 6,090
  5-year 47.1 61.1 -14.0 5,842
  7-year 56.7 66.3 -9.6 5,621
Public
  3-year 46.6 66.8 -20.2 1,646
  5-year 54.2 68.9 -14.7 1,600
  7-year 62.1 72.1 -10.0 1,565
Private nonprofit
  3-year 57.7 77.5 -19.8 1,386
  5-year 63.7 77.3 -13.6 1,375
  7-year 70.4 79.3 -8.9 1,338
For-profit
  3-year 30.5 50.4 -19.9 3,058
  5-year 35.0 48.9 -13.9 2,850
  7-year 46.9 56.5 -9.6 2,700
Source: College Scorecard.

 

For those who wish to dig into individual colleges’ repayment rates, here is a spreadsheet of the new and old 3, 5, and 7-year repayment rates.

Fixing the coding error made a big difference in the percentage of students who are making at least some progress repaying their loans. (And ED’s announcement yesterday that it will create a public microdata file from the National Student Loan Data System will help make these errors less likely in the future as researchers spot discrepancies.) This change is likely to get a lot of discussion in coming days, particularly as the new Congress and the incoming Trump administration get ready to consider potential changes to the federal student loan system.

How to Improve Income-Driven Repayment Plan Cost Estimates

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) took the U.S. Department of Education (ED) behind the proverbial woodshed in a new report that was extremely critical of how ED estimated the cost of income-driven repayment (IDR) programs. (Senate Republicans, which asked for the report, immediately piled on.) Between fiscal years 2011 and 2017, ED estimated that IDR plans would cost $25.1 billion. The current estimated cost is up to $52.5 billion, as shown in the figure below from the GAO report.

gao_fig1

The latest estimate from the GAO—and the number that got front-page treatment in The Wall Street Journal—is that the federal government expects to forgive $108 billion of the estimated $352 billion of loans currently enrolled in income-driven repayment plans. Much of the forgiven loan balances are currently scheduled to be taxable (a political hot topic), but some currently unknown portion will be completely forgiven through Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

gao_fig2

The GAO report revealed some incredible concerns with how ED estimated program costs. Alexander Holt of New America has a good summary of these concerns, calling them “gross negligence.” In addition to the baffling choices not to even account for Grad PLUS loans in IDR models until 2015 (!) and to not assume borrowers’ incomes increased at the rate of inflation (!!), ED ran very few sensitivity analyses about how different reasonable assumptions would affect program costs. As a result, the estimates have not tracked tremendously closely with reality over the last several years.

But there are several reasonable steps that could be taken to improve the accuracy of cost estimates within a reasonable period of time. They are the following:

(1) Share the current methodology and take suggestions for improvement from the research community. This idea comes from Doug Webber, a higher ed finance expert and assistant professor at Temple University:

ED could then take one of two paths to improve the models. First, they could simply collect submissions of code from the education community to see what the resulting budget estimates look like. A second—and better—way would be to convene a working group similar to the technical review panels used to improve National Center for Education Statistics surveys. This group of experts could help ED develop a set of reasonable models to estimate costs.

(2) Make available institutional-level data on income-driven repayment takeup rates and debt burdens of students enrolled in IDR plans. This would require ED to produce a new dataset from the National Student Loan Data System, which is no small feat given the rickety nature of the data system. But, as the College Scorecard shows, it is possible to compile better information on student outcomes from available data sources. ED also released information on the number of borrowers in IDR plans by state last spring, so it’s certainly possible to release better data.

(3) Make a percentage of student-level loan data available to qualified researchers. This dataset already exists—and is in fact the same dataset that ED uses in making budget projections. Yet, aside from one groundbreaking paper that looked at loan defaults over time, no independent researchers have been allowed access to the data. Researchers can use other sensitive student-level datasets compiled by ED (with the penalty for bad behavior being a class E felony!), but not student loan data. I joined over 100 researchers and organizations this fall calling for ED to make these data available to qualified researchers who already use other sensitive data sources.

These potential efforts to involve the research community to improve budget estimates are particularly important during a Presidential transition period. The election of Donald Trump may lead to a great deal of turnover within career staff members at the Department of Education—the types of people who have the skills needed to produce reasonable cost estimates. I hope that the Trump Administration works to keep top analysts in the Washington swamp, while endeavoring to work with academics to help improve the accuracy of IDR cost projections.

Clinton and Trump Proposals on Student Debt Explained

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The high price of attending college has been among the key issues concerning voters in the 2016 presidential election. Both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump have called the nearly US$1.3 trillion in student debt a “crisis.” During the third presidential debate on Oct. 19, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton raised the issue all over again when she said,

“I want to make college debt-free. For families making less than $125,000, you will not get a tuition bill from a public college or a university if the plan that I worked on with Bernie Sanders is enacted.”

Republican nominee Donald Trump has also expressed concerns about college affordability. In a recent campaign speech in Columbus, Ohio, Trump provided a broad framework of his plan for higher education should he be elected president.

In a six-minute segment devoted solely to higher education, Trump proceeded to call student debt a “crisis” – matching Clinton’s language. He also called for colleges to curb rising administrative costs, spend their endowments on making college more affordable and protect students’ academic freedom.

The highlight of Trump’s speech was his proposal to create an income-based repayment system for federal student loans. Under his proposal, students would pay back 12.5 percent of their income for 15 years after leaving college. This is more generous than the typical income-based plan available today (which requires paying 10 percent of income for 20 to 25 years). The remaining balance of the loan is forgiven after that period, although this amount is subject to income taxes.

As a researcher of higher education finance, I question whether these proposals on student debt will benefit a significant number of the over 10 million college-going voters struggling to repay loans.

How student loan interest rates work

Typically, students pay interest rates set by Congress and the president on their federal student loans.

Over the last decade, interest rates for undergraduate students have fluctuated between 3.4 percent and 6.8 percent. Rates for federal PLUS loans have ranged from 6.3 percent to 8.5 percent. Federal PLUS loans require a credit check and are often cosigned by a parent or spouse. Federal student loans do not have those requirements.

While students pay this high a rate of interest, rates on 15-year mortgages are currently below three percent.

It is also important to note the role of private loan companies that have recently entered this market. In the last several years, private companies such as CommonBond, Earnest and SoFi as well as traditional banks have offered to refinance select students’ loans at interest rates that range from two percent to eight percent based on a student’s earnings and their credit history.

However, unlike federal loans (which are available to nearly everyone attending colleges participating in the federal financial aid programs), private companies limit refinancing to students who have already graduated from college, have a job and earn a high income relative to the monthly loan payments.

Analysts have estimated that $150 billion of the federal government’s $1.25 trillion student loan portfolio – or more than 10 percent of all loan dollars – is likely eligible for refinancing through the private market.

Many Democrats, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have pushed for years, for all students to receive lower interest rates on their federal loans. In the past Republican nominee Donald Trump too has questioned why the federal government profits on student loans – although whether the government actually profits is less clear.

Issues with refinancing of loans

The truth is that students with the most debt are typically college graduates and are the least likely to struggle to repay their loans. In addition, they can often refinance through the private market at rates comparable to what the federal government would offer.

Struggling borrowers, on the other hand, already have a range of income-driven repayment options through the federal government that can help them manage their loans. Some of their loans could also be forgiven after 10 to 25 years of payments.

Furthermore, the majority of the growth in federal student loans is now in income-driven plans, making refinancing far less beneficial than it would have been 10 years ago. Under income-driven plans, monthly payments are not tied to interest rates.

So, on the face of it, as Clinton has proposed, allowing students to refinance federal loans would appear to be beneficial. But, in reality, because of the growth of private refinancing for higher-income students and the availability of income-driven plans for lower-income students, relatively few students would likely benefit.

Focus needed on most in need students

In my view, Clinton’s idea of allowing students to refinance their loans at lower rates through the federal government is unlikely to benefit that many students. However, streamlining income-based repayment programs (supported by both candidates) has the potential to help struggling students get help in managing their loans.

Nearly 60 percent of students who were enrolled in income-driven repayment plans fail to file the annual paperwork. That paperwork is necessary if students are to stay in those programs. And failure to do so results in many students facing higher monthly payments.

At this stage, we know many details of Clinton’s college plan. Her debt-free public college proposal (if enacted) would benefit families in financial need, but her loan refinancing proposal would primarily benefit more affluent individuals with higher levels of student debt.

In order to access Trump’s plan we need more details. For example, the current income-based repayment system exempts income below 150 percent of the poverty line (about $18,000 for a single borrower) and allows students working in public service fields to get complete forgiveness after ten years of payments. The extent to which Trump’s plan helps struggling borrowers depends on these important details.

The Conversation

The Relationship Between Student Debt and Earnings

Note: This piece first appeared on the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Chalkboard blog.

Student loan debt in the United States is now over $1.25 trillion, nearly three times as much as just a decade ago. The typical student graduating with a bachelor’s degree with debt (about 70 percent of all students) now owes between $30,000 and $40,000 for their education, about twice as much as a decade ago. Although taking on modest amounts of debt in order to pay for college is generally a good bet in the long run, colleges with similar admissions standards and resource levels leave students with different amounts of debt.

College Scorecard data highlight the large amount of variation in what high-debt undergraduate students borrow across colleges with similar admissions criteria.1 The figure below shows the distribution of the 90th percentiles of debt burdens (in 2016 dollars) for students who left 1,156 four-year public and private nonprofit colleges in 2006 or 2007, broken down into three selectivity categories.2 Not surprisingly, the most selective colleges, which have the resources to offer more scholarships and fewer students with financial need, have lower debt burdens than somewhat selective or less selective colleges. These differences in borrowing by selectivity are larger than by type of college, as median debt at public colleges was only about $2,400 more than at private nonprofit colleges.

brookings_fig1_sep16Attending college and taking on $40,000 or even $50,000 in debt can be an outstanding investment in a student’s future—but only if students from that college actually end up getting good jobs. I then examined the relationship between 90th percentile debt burdens upon leaving college in 2006 and 2007 and the median earnings of students in 2011 and 2012 who began college in 2001 and 2002.3 The figure below shows that colleges that tend to have higher amounts of student debt also tend to have lower earnings in later years, which is in part due to student characteristics and their prior family income rather than the causal impact of the college. The correlation coefficient between debt and earnings is about -0.35 overall, but between -0.10 and -0.20 within each selectivity group. This suggests that colleges with higher debt burdens also have higher earnings, but much of the relationship between debt and earnings can be explained by selectivity.

brookings_fig2_sep16An old rule of thumb in paying for college is that students should not borrow more for a bachelor’s degree than they expect to earn one year after graduation. Although the presence of income-driven repayment programs allows students to repay their federal student loans even if they make less money, the debt-to-income ratio is still a useful way to judge colleges. The final figure shows the distribution of colleges’ debt-to-income ratios using the initial debt upon leaving college for high-debt students and annual earnings approximately five years later. A ratio over 1 at this point is a major concern, as earnings should grow considerably during a student’s first few years after college.

brookings_fig3_sep16Few high-debt students at the most selective colleges likely have issues making enough money to repay their loans, as just one of the 191 colleges in this category had a debt-to-earnings ratio above 1. Just under 15 percent of the somewhat selective colleges had ratios above 1, while about one-third of the least selective colleges had ratios above 1. This reflects the fact that financially-struggling students who attend less selective colleges (roughly 13% of the undergraduates in my sample, or about 800,000 students) take on more debt and earn less money than high-debt students at highly-selective colleges.

With student debt being a growing concern among Americans and playing a key role in the presidential campaign, students and their families are wise to consider the likely return on their investment in higher education. As the data show, some colleges do leave their former students with less debt than other similar colleges. But among less-selective colleges that enroll large numbers of lower-income or minority students, some amount of debt is almost unavoidable. Students should not seek to avoid all debt, but they should be mindful that even among broad-access institutions, colleges vary in how much debt their students take on.

———————————————————-

1 Debt and earnings data from the College Scorecard combine students who graduate with those who dropped out.

2 Colleges in the Barron’s categories of special, noncompetitive, and less competitive are in my lowest selectivity tier (n=195), colleges in the competitive, competitive-plus, and very competitive categories are in the middle tier (n=770), and all others are in the highest tier (n=191).

3 The College Scorecard does not track debt burdens by when students started college (only when they left), so I estimated that students either graduated or left college in about five years.

Students Shouldn’t Be Terrified of Borrowing for College

I wrote the below letter to the editor of the Star-Ledger, New Jersey’s largest newspaper, in response to a truly woeful editorial piece that they recently published on student loan debt. (Note: They eventually ran the letter, but here is a slightly revised version for your enjoyment.)

—————————————————————————

As a college professor who researches the implications of student loan debt, I was dismayed to read the Star-Ledger Editorial Board’s recent piece titled “Why we should all be terrified of student loans.” Yes, the $1.25 trillion in outstanding student loan debt is a concern, but the typical amount borrowed for a bachelor’s degree is more manageable—about $30,000 per student. Students who borrow from the federal government can also enroll in income-driven repayment programs that allow them to make small or no payments if their income is low.

The “terrified” headline has the potential to scare students and their families away from making a worthwhile investment in college. Research shows that low-income, first-generation, and minority students are particularly averse to borrowing for college, even when borrowing a reasonable amount of money would help them attend and graduate college. Students and their families should be careful about taking on too much debt, particularly from programs like New Jersey’s state student loan system that do not allow payments to be tied to the student’s income. But students should not be terrified of taking out modest loans from the federal government to make college a reality.

Income-Driven Repayment Plans Continue to Grow

The traditional way to repay federal student loans was for students to pay back their loans over a ten-year period of time, generally by making the same payment each month. But as student loan debt has generally risen over time (although falling ever so slightly in the most recent quarter), paying off larger loans in a short period of time has become more difficult for many borrowers. This has made income-driven repayment plans, expanded during both the Bush and Obama Administrations, an appealing option for more students (although the future price tag of the programs is something to watch closely in the future).

The U.S. Department of Education recently released new data (updated every three months) on the federal student loan portfolio showing the growth in income-driven plans. The chart below shows the percentage of dollars in the Direct Loan program that are in one of four broad categories: 10-year payment plans not tied to income, longer payment plans not tied to income, income-driven plans, and miscellaneous plans that don’t fit well in any of the above three categories.1

repay_aug16

Since 2013 (when repayment plan data first became available), the federal government’s holdings in the Direct Loan program have risen from $361 billion to $673 billion. The amount of loans in the standard ten-year repayment plan rose from $168 billion to $267 billion during this time, but the amount in income-driven plans rose from $72 billion to $269 billion in just three years. Income-driven plans now make up 40.0% of all Direct Loan dollars, while 39.7% of dollars are now in ten-year plans.

The Department of Education also released data for the first time on the number of students seeking employment certification in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which will allow students working in approved fields to make ten years of payments instead of 20-25 years under other income-driven plans. While students aren’t officially in PSLF until they complete ten years of payments (the first students will do so in October 2017), this is an interesting measure of potential interest in PSLF. The below figure (from Federal Student Aid) shows the number of students who have submitted employment certification forms in possible preparation for receiving PSLF.

ecf_aug16

Notably, about one-third of all requests have been denied to this date, suggesting that quite a few students will get an unpleasant surprise when they go apply for PSLF in the next few years. But at least 430,000 students look to be on track for PSLF at this point—a number that is likely a significant understatement of the number of applications that the federal government will receive.

 

1 The Direct Loan program represents about 90% of all loans held by the federal government. The other 10% are in the older Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, which has not disbursed new loans in years but has about one-third of its loan dollars in income-based plans. I excluded FFEL here because repayment plan data are only available for 2016.