The neediest college students are the least likely to meet the deadlines for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, according to a new study by Mary Feeney, associate professor of public administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The study was published in The Journal of Student Financial Aid. The odds of completing the application go up if the student has a parent or another adult who understands the process who can help.
The sales pitch is enticing: Let students go to college for "free" and ask them to pay later by taxing a percentage of their incomes once they have jobs. The money coming in from graduates, then pays "forward," covering college costs for current students and alleviating the fear of debt that keeps many college-qualified students from even applying and that discourages college graduates from pursuing careers that may not have high salaries.
That’s the seductive premise behind Pay It Forward, billed as a "debt-free" approach to higher education, currently under consideration in Oregon. But like many sales pitches meant to lure consumers, Pay It Forward provides a superficial "fix" that has more downsides than up, thereby masking the real problems in higher education financing.
There is no disputing that higher education is facing a crisis of affordability. State funding per student has dropped to its lowest level in 25 years, shifting much of the financial responsibility for college costs to students and their families. The result? Too many students have to choose between avoiding college altogether or taking on overwhelming amounts of debt to pay for a degree.
We applaud state policymakers who are working to identify ways to rein in college costs. The United States needs more college-educated workers, and we won’t have them unless we make college more affordable. But we have to make sure that the solutions we put into place don’t work against students and taxpayers by inflating college costs even more, especially for the families who can least afford them.
Because Pay It Forward proposes to tax graduates’ income at a certain rate every year (say 4 percent) for up to 25 years, graduates will end up paying very different amounts for their education — often more than what that education actually cost. An analysis from the Oregon Center for Public Policy estimates that an average student could overpay more than $7,000 under Pay It Forward. Worse, the neediest students — those currently receiving federal or state financial aid — could be hit the hardest, potentially paying thousands more over their lifetimes than they would have under the current system.
Let’s not forget, either, that Pay It Forward only addresses tuition, which makes up just part of total college costs; room and board, books and supplies, and miscellaneous fees aren’t covered. At the University of Oregon, for example, those additional fees amount to almost 60 percent of a student’s total costs. Of the $23,370 total estimated cost of a year at Oregon for a resident of the state, about $9,300 is consumed by tuition. Under Pay It Forward, the average student would have to cover the remaining $14,000 out of pocket or through loans, creating a double whammy for students: They’d have to pay off student loan debt in addition to having their income taxed to "pay it forward."
Some of these concerns could be addressed in any final package. Our biggest concern with Pay It Forward, though, is that it doesn’t address the root issue: rapidly escalating college costs. By positioning higher education less as a public good than as an individual transaction, Pay It Forward absolves both state policymakers and institutional leaders of any responsibility for doing what it takes to slow the rapid increases in the cost of a college education.
Instead of demanding cost-consciousness among college presidents and an ongoing commitment from states to maintain or increase higher education funding, Pay It Forward simply puts a big Band-Aid over the current trend of state disinvestment and the transfer of financial burden from the state to students and their families. Ironically, although trying to ensure progressively that each graduating class opens the door for ones to follow, Pay It Forward could actually just open the door to more privatization of public education.
States should develop innovative solutions to the rising cost of college, but they should be transparent about them. If they’re going to sell students on debt-free college, they should offer debt-free college. Loan debt simply repackaged as delayed tuition payments may be a catchy sales pitch, but it’s a bad bargain for students.
Kati Haycock is president of the Education Trust, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization.
The Education Department is set to issue a package of final regulations on federal student loans that are aimed, in part, at helping distressed borrowers and preventing colleges from manipulating their default rates.
In a notice last week, the department said it would officially adopt the rules “within the next several days” (though they would not take effect until next July). In addition to making minor changes to reflect legislative changes, the 423 pages of rules also beef up some protections for federal student loan borrowers.
Under the new rules, a borrower who is at least 270 days delinquent in paying his or her loans would be able to be placed in forbearance based on an oral request as opposed to the current written request requirement. This verbal forbearance request, however, would have limitations in order to prevent colleges from easily coercing students over the phone into unnecessary forbearances that help the institution avoid a default on its books -- or at least defer the default until the end of three-year period that the federal government evaluates. Any forbearance based on an oral request would be limited to 120 days and could not be extended without a written request and supporting documentation for why a loan deferment is needed.
In addition, the new regulations set a limit on the size of the payment that loan servicers can demand of defaulted borrowers who are trying to avail themselves of the opportunity, under federal law, to rehabilitate their student loans by making “reasonable and affordable” payments. The new rules would automatically define that “reasonable and affordable” standard as 15 percent of a borrower’s discretionary income -- that is, what he or she would be paying under an income-based-repayment plan. The clarified standard reduces the amount of financial documentation needed from the borrower.
The Institute for College Access and Success, which pushed for many of the changes, praised the new regulations in a blog post Tuesday as “key protections” that will “make it easier for borrowers to get out of default and repay their loans.”
A third federal agency is now investigating Sallie Mae for violations of consumer protection laws, the company disclosed to investors in a quarterly report this week.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in September sought information from Sallie Mae as part of the bureau’s investigation into “allegations relating to our existing payment allocation practices and procedures,” the company said. The CFPB’s inquiry, according to the report, is similar to a separate investigation of Sallie Mae by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which plans to issue an enforcement action against the company for violations of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and other laws. The Civil Relief Act provides service members special benefits while they are on active-duty, such as a cap on the interest-rate on their student loans.
The Department of Justice is also probing Sallie Mae about its compliance with consumer protection law. The company said that it is “cooperating fully” with all three agencies.
In a report last year, the CFPB said that military service members were missing out on important benefits because of problems with their federal student-loan servicers. In some cases, the errors could cost members of the military tens of thousands of dollars, the agency said. Earlier this month, a CFPB analysis of borrower complaints reveled that some private student-loan servicers were applying advanced payments on loans in a way that maximizes profits for the lender but often leads to the borrower paying more interest.