An advocacy group's new report shows that nearly a million community college students -- including a disproportionate share of underrepresented minorities -- lack access to federal student loan programs.
College and university leaders will be increasingly called to answer this question. That’s partly because the law will demand it: the newly embraced three-year cohort default rate measurement could result in penalties for more colleges and universities, and recent Congressional proposals could make institutions where significant numbers of students borrow and default on those loans responsible for paying back a sliding-scale amount of the defaulted debt to the federal government.
But the federal government’s current mechanism for holding institutions accountable for default rates has significant shortcomings.
The federal bar for monitoring loan default is necessary, but not sufficient for a number of reasons.
Another View on Loans
Student loan debt and defaults are real problems -- but let's impose solutions that improve access for low-income students rather than scare them off, Karen Gross argues.
First, the cohort default rate does not account for institutions with high numbers of risky borrowers. To address this, the Institute for College Access & Success has proposed a Student Default Risk Index, which takes into account the proportion of students who borrow at an institution (unlike traditional cohort default rate calculations) in determining an acceptable risk of default.
Second, the threat of federal sanctions may create disincentives for institutions to provide their students with access to federal loans. Recent headlines provide anecdotal evidence that some community colleges prefer to limit access to loans in order to preserve Pell eligibility for students.
Third, federal sanctions do not address private student loan default. According to a report released by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency estimated private student loan debt to stand at $165 billion at the end of 2011.
Finally, the threshold for sanctions is relatively low and it remains to be seen how many institutions will actually be sanctioned.
For those reasons, we think it is important for those of us in higher education to extend our discourse about default above the bar set by federal policy.
Given these limitations, we recommend institutional leaders approach debates about default from the following three perspectives.
(1) Institutions might approach the question from a mission-focused perspective. If we assume that the core mission of any educational institution is to maximize the educational attainment of its students, then questions about loan default should be tied to understanding how the prospect of borrowing, indebtedness and repayment affect important outcomes like learning, academic achievement, persistence, and completing a credential.
These are important questions for at least two reasons. First, loans are intended to serve as policy tools to help students obtain an education. In light of a public policy shift toward the preference of loans over grants and the continued decline of public investment in postsecondary education, it is important to frame the default debate in terms of educational outcomes. Second, a key predictor of repayment hardship and even default is whether or not a student completed their program of study and earned a credential. If we hope to help struggling borrowers repay loans, it seems clear that the best policy solution is to help students graduate.
(2) Institutions should consider the question from a political perspective in terms of public stewardship (more so than politicking). Default has clearly captured media and public attention. From our perspective, this is because debt is part of broader social debates about college affordability, economic opportunity and social mobility.
Perhaps it is no accident that this current debate (it is cyclical) comes on the heels of the greatest period of economic turmoil and insecurity since the Great Depression. Following on the heels of the Great Recession, debt has increased because more people went back to school and because income has fallen. Politicians and policy makers are seeking to assuage the concerns of constituents through a number of proposals.
The Wisconsin state legislature proposed the “Higher Education, Lower Debt” bill that would have created a new state agency to refinance student loans. Oregon’s “Pay It Forward” pilot program would use a graduate tax rather than loans to finance college, while Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) proposed a plan that would have investors pay students’ tuition in exchange for a share of their future earnings.
In debating potential changes to financial aid policies, institutions should consider the relevance of public perception and the reaction of elected or appointed policy makers. It may be tempting to cynically evaluate proposals from ill-informed politicians whose solutions are loosely (if at all) coupled to the problem of student loan debt. However, it is important to take seriously the underlying concerns that drive the current rhetoric. In crafting an institutional plan, acknowledge these concerns as much as possible among the various constituents (e.g., students, parents, politicians, news media). Ultimately, political and policy questions are about the perceptions of the community that the institution calls home. It is vital that higher education leaders engage these perceptions.
(3) Institutions should consider engaging in philosophical reflection. Embedded in the question, "What is a reasonable amount of default (and by extension debt)?" are beliefs about who should pay for the benefits and burdens of education. If we believe education only benefits the individual, then asking students to foot the bill themselves via loans makes sense.
Conversely, if we believe education benefits the public primarily, grants would be the finance mechanism of choice. Over the past 20 years, federal education policy has moved toward viewing education primarily as a private good.
However, higher education in this country is extraordinarily diverse in terms of institutional mission and type. Institutions adopt varied approaches to student financial aid, in part because of different philosophies, missions, and resources. For example, Berea College has its Labor Program in which students contribute to the cost of their education by working, while Amherst College has a no-loan policy for its students and Johnson C. Smith University had 100 percent of its 2011 graduating class borrow to pay for school.
Institutions must be sensitive to their histories, needs and capacity when considering the question of student indebtedness.
From the central administration office of a college to the day-to-day operations of financial aid offices, institutions are on the front line when answering the question, “What is an acceptable level of student loan default?” They are the last source of financial aid for students and it is their aid officers who do the bulk of consultation on borrowing and repaying loans.
Without clear and careful answers to this question, the current discourse around student loan debt and repayment crisis will leave little room for thoughtful solutions. At a minimum, answering this question should account for the academic, political, and philosophical contexts outlined here. But answers should also be clear about the nature of the problem given the institutional context and the profile of students they serve.
Jacob P.K. Gross is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Louisville. Nicholas Hillman is assistant professor in the department of educational leadership & policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
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.