The student loan problem seems clear enough on the surface: students are incurring oversized student debt, and they are defaulting on that debt and threatening their ability to access future credit. The approaches to student loan debt collection are fraught with problems, including improper recovery tactics and informational asymmetry regarding repayment options.
But the current public policy conversations miss key issues that contribute to the debt mess, leading to proffered solutions that also miss their mark.
Start with these key facts about student loans:
The reported student debt loans represent averages, yet the amounts owed can differ dramatically from student to student. That is why solutions like the mandated debt calculator on college websites or the current College Scorecard do not resolve the issues; the disclosure of generic information does not impact student choice meaningfully.
Many of the problematic student loans are held by individuals who left college before graduation, meaning they have incurred “debt without diploma.” This reality distorts default statistics, making their indicia of school quality misleading. The cost of education is not necessarily commensurate with the quality of the education received, meaning some students pay more and get less, and we do not have an adequate system for measuring educational quality other than accreditation, which is a deeply flawed process.
Finally, students and their families are woefully unaware of the myriad repayment options, and therefore forgo existing benefits or are taken advantage of by loan servicers. This occurs because we de-link conversations of “front-end” costs of higher education from “back-end” repayment options and opportunities; students and their families are scared off by the front end without knowing that there is meaningful back-end relief.
Given these facts, it becomes clearer why some of the current government reform suggestions are misguided. Two illustrations:
First, evaluating colleges on a rating system based on the earning levels of their graduates assumes the overwhelming majority of students graduate and that the employment chosen will be high-paying. But we know that not to be true, and for good reason: some students proudly enter public service or other low-paying but publicly beneficial employment. And, in today’s economy, not all students can find employment directly correlated to their field of study.
We also know that those from high-income families have greater networking opportunities, given family connections. Yes, some schools offer degrees with little or no value, but the solution to student loan indebtedness does not rest on an earnings threshold.
Second, looking at loan default rates as a measure of the success of a college misses that many colleges welcome students from lower income quartiles, and these students have less collegiate success – understandably, although obviously many are working to improve these statistics. The fact that some of these students do not progress to a degree is not a sign of institutional failure any more than student success at elite institutions is a guarantee of those institutions’ quality. One approach to consider is linking default rates with the types of students being served by an institution. But one thing that should not change, to the dismay of some: many of the government student loans should not be based on credit worthiness.
Not that many years ago, private lenders dominated both the student lending and home mortgage markets. This created obvious parallels between lending in these two spheres. Lenders overpriced for risk, provided monies to borrowers who were not credit-worthy, and had loan products with troubling features like sizable front-end fees, high default interest rates and aggressive debt collection practices.
In both markets, there was an embedded assumption: real estate values would continue to rise and well-paying employment opportunities would be plentiful for college graduates.
Then several things happened. The federal government took over the student loan market, cutting out the private lender as the middleman on government loans on both the front and back end. The economy took a nosedive that led to diminished home values and lower employment opportunities. And, when the proverbial bubble burst in the home lending markets, lenders sought to foreclose, only to find that their collateral had diminished in value.
For student loans, the bubble has not burst and, despite hyperbole to the contrary, it is unlikely to burst because the government -- not the private sector -- is the lender. Indeed, this market is intentionally not focused on credit worthiness; if anything, it awards more dollars to those who have weak credit, specifically to enable educational opportunity.
And while Congress can debate the interest rates charged on student loans, the size of Pell Grants and the growing default rates, it is highly improbable that the student loan market will be privatized any time soon.
But, for the record, there are already signs that private lenders and venture capitalists have re-entered or are ready to re-enter this market, for better or worse. And if the government’s financial aid offerings are or become less beneficial than those in the open market, we will see a resurgence of private lending offered to students and their families. One caution: history tells us that the risks of the private student loan market are substantial; all one has to do is look at lending improprieties before and since the government became the lender-in-chief and the non-student loan predatory lending that targets our least financially stable borrowers.
There are things that can and should be done to improve the government-run student-lending market to encourage our most vulnerable students to pursue higher education at institutions that will serve them well. Here are five timely and doable suggestions worth considering now:
(1) Lower the interest rates on government-issued subsidized Stafford loans. The government is making considerable profit on student loans, and we need to encourage quality, market-sensitive, fiscally wise borrowing, most particularly among vulnerable students. Student loans to our most financially risky students should remain without regard to credit worthiness (the worthiness of the academic institution is point 2). Otherwise, we will be left with educational opportunity available only for the rich.
(2) Improve the accreditation process so that accreditors assess more thoughtfully and fairly the institutions they govern, whether that accreditation is regional or national. Currently, there are vastly too many idiosyncrasies in the process, including favoritism, violation of due process and fair dealing, and questionable competency of some of the accreditors. And the government has not been sufficiently proactive in recognizing accreditors, despite clear authority to do so.
(3) Simplify (as was done successfully with the FAFSA) the repayment options. There are too many options and too many opportunities for students to err in their selection. We know that income-based repayment is under-utilized, and students become ostriches rather than unraveling and working through the options actually available. Mandated exit interviews are not a “teachable moment” for this information; we need to inform students more smartly. Consideration should be given to information at the time repayment kicks in --- usually six months post-graduation.
(4) Incentivize college and universities to work on post-graduation default rates (and repayment options) by establishing programs where they (the educational institutions) proactively reach out to their graduates to address repayment options, an initiative we will be trying on our own campus. Improvement in institutional default rates could be structured to enable increased institutional access to federal monies for work-study or SEOG, the greater the improvement, the greater the increase.
The suggestion, then, is contrary to the proffered government approach: taking away benefits. The suggestion proffered here uses a carrot, not a stick – offering more aid rather than threatening to take away aid. Importantly, we cannot mandate a meaningful minimum default rate because default rates are clearly correlated to the vulnerability of the student population, and we do not want to disincentivize institutions from serving first-generation, underrepresented minority and low-income students.
(5) Create a new financial product for parents/guardians/family members/friends who want to borrow to assist their children (or those whom they are raising or supporting even if not biological or step children) in progressing through higher education, replacing the current Parent Plus Loan. The current Parent Plus loan product is too expensive (both at initiation and in terms of interest rates) and more recently too keyed to credit worthiness. The individuals who most need this product are those who are more vulnerable. And the definition of “parent” is vastly too narrow given the contours of American families today.
Home ownership and education are both part of the American dream. Both benefit the individuals and larger society. How we foster both is, however, vastly different. We need to stop shouting about the shared crisis and see how we can truly help students and their families access higher education rather than making them run for the proverbial hills.
Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College and a former policy adviser to the U.S. under secretary of education.
A recent New York Times op-ed blames the rules and regulations of the federal Pell Grant program for many of our nation’s higher education access and completion problems. In short, the authors contend that the rule that defines a full-time course load as 12 or more credits per term hinders students from graduating early or even on time.
The emphasis on that relatively small technical issue distracts from a much more important point: the Pell Grant – which currently maxes out at $5,645 for the academic year – is not nearly enough to cover college costs for any of its recipients. That is the key issue legislators must grapple with when thinking about how to raise graduation rates.
While public investment in the Pell Grant has expanded over time, its purchasing power has dropped dramatically. Forty years ago, a needy student could use the Pell Grant to cover more than 75 percent of the costs of attending a public four-year college or university. Today, it covers barely 30 percent. There is little other grant award or work-study funding available to students at public institutions, so even students borrowing the maximum available subsidized loans are left with unmet financial need and thus must work as well.
This is a sharp change from the past, when students could optimize their focus on school by borrowing instead of working. Now, the vast majority of students must work long hours and borrow heavily in order to make ends meet. On top of that, students from working poor families also tend to carry elder and child care obligations, are more likely to have expensive struggles with their health, and often need to contribute their parents’ household expenses even while finding resources for their books and supplies. These “opportunity costs” of attending college greatly exceed the meager financial aid we provide.
The headlines focus on elite colleges with no-loans policies. But the latest federal data show that at public colleges and universities, where most Americans attend college, students from families in the bottom 25 percent of the family income distribution -- earning an average of just $15,870 a year -- must pay almost $12,000 a year for college.
That’s right: after taking all grant aid into account, those families are expected to live on about $4,000 a year if they want their child to get a bachelor’s degree. In that situation, borrowing is hardly optional (but quite risky for families with such little financial slack) but with current loan limits it is also insufficient. Making ends meet on financial aid alone -- even for America's poorest -- is thus far more difficult than public perception currently holds.
Of course, community colleges are available to these families as well. In a recent U.S. Senate testimony, the researcher Judith Scott-Clayton stated that more students ought to recognize just how affordable these colleges really are. To do this, she pointed out that the Pell Grant often covers tuition and fees, and that its recipients get money back to live on.
That’s true, but even with those dollars in hand those same low-income families must come up with an additional $7,000 a year for their child to attend those lower-priced alternatives. Leaving the rest of the family to live on $8,000 a year isn’t often possible.
The hard truth is that college is the least affordable for America’s working poor families. If you are lucky enough to have earnings in the top 50 percent of family income (making more than around $85,000), your child can get a bachelor’s degree at an expense of about 20 percent of your annual income.
But if you reside in or below the middle class, securing access to the bachelor’s degree at a public institution for your children demands one-third to three-fourths of your annual income (even a community college education eats 21 to 46 percent of annual income).
Increasing the college completion rates of financial aid recipients requires actually making college affordable. We should start by restoring the value of the Pell Grant by bringing states and institutions to the table and driving down college costs.
We must provide incentives for states to move toward providing two years of community or technical college at no cost to families. Let’s dramatically expand the federal work-study program, especially at community colleges. Ensure that every Pell Grant recipient has access to a minimum of 20 hours per week of on-campus employment.
Require colleges to provide all students with supportive staff to can help them construct realistic schedules and financial plans, and ensure that they are screened for eligibility for all forms of financial aid and public benefits each year to support their college attendance.
Finally, adjust the calculation of need so that it is possible for the expected family contribution to drop below $0 for the most severely poor students; this will allow them to accept as much financial aid (and subsidized loans) as they need to ensure their college costs are covered.
The American dream holds that individual merit rather than family background determines educational opportunities. Unfortunately, spending money on federal financial aid has given us a false sense of satisfaction that we are all living that dream.
We have not done enough to ensure all students have more than a foot in the door of higher education. Opening their pathways to degrees requires more than platitudes -- it requires accountability for states and institutions and also serious money.
Sara Goldrick-Rab is an associate professor of education policy studies & sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.