In response to New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s inquiries and a spate of unseemly behavior in student lending, federal officials have quickly embraced patchwork solutions for the industry. As a consequence, they are in danger of overlooking the opportunity for a thorough reassessment of college financing.
Some of the behavior raising eyebrows is clearly troubling and inappropriate, such as incidents at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Texas of lenders and financial aid officials engaging in “payola” and in-stock dealings. Other reputed scandals, however, are more ambiguous and say more about the state of the loan sector itself than those involved in it. For instance, Nelnet has been under scrutiny for its marketing deals with university alumni associations; Sallie Mae for providing call-centers for colleges and universities and offering “opportunity loans” to students who might not otherwise qualify; and various lenders for “revenue sharing” with universities and paying for travel and lodging while courting financial aid officials.
These “scandalous” behaviors actually amount to the relationship-building and aggressive marketing one finds in any business dependent on sales. They may be uncouth or unlovely, but these activities simply reflect loan providers struggling for advantage within the murky rules of the existing market. Meanwhile, financial aid officials juggle considerations of cost, institutional need, and provider quality in a constantly changing market place. It’s no wonder that we are unhappy with the results.
We should expect private enterprises to tiptoe up to the edge of what’s permissible. Pushing boundaries is what drives the process of innovation, marketing, and cost cutting, the results of which we enjoy until we are exposed to their unseemly underbelly. If we do not like where those lines are drawn, then it is appropriate to move them.
Cuomo’s code of conduct will help on this count, but criticizing loan providers or financial aid offices for fostering associations with one another is unfair when we remember that today’s reviled “preferred lender” lists themselves were largely a response to federal direction. In the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990, Congress made reasonable student default rates a condition for the participation of colleges and universities in the FFEL program, thereby giving institutions incentives to prefer lenders with a record that federal officials would deem satisfactory. Compelled to favor lenders with lower default rates, colleges and universities created “preferred lender” lists, and lenders began to compete for places on them. In short, Congress’s earlier directive -- reasonable and eminently defensible -- helped foster the relationships that legislators now decry.
The Big Picture
When the Guaranteed Student Loan program was created in 1965, just 18 percent of college age students pursued college. Today, that number is over 50 percent. Federal lending has played a key role in expanding access to college, but its success has created a new world with its own challenges.
Policy makers in the 1960s and ’70s assumed that banks would be reluctant to provide the necessary funds to students who are mobile, small-dollar and risky borrowers, and thought it necessary to provide resources and incentives to ensure an adequate financing pool.
In response, Uncle Sam promised to reimburse lenders for defaulted loans, raised the statutory interest rate, provided a supplemental rate of return for lenders (called the “special allowance”), and created the Student Loan Marketing Association (known as Sallie Mae) to buy extant loans, thereby creating liquidity for new loans. Those efforts have succeeded to a degree that their early architects could scarcely have imagined. Private student lending has exploded to over $17 billion a year, equal to about 25 percent of the federal loan volume, suggesting that those early efforts and developments in credit markets have met many of their goals -- at least for serving some segments of the lending market.
In fact, the furor about the cost of college centers on the price of private schools; two-year and four-year public schools -- which enroll 80 percent of college students -- remain a remarkable bargain. While the median price tag for tuition and fees at a private four-year college is $22,000, and well over $40,000 at top-tier schools in college ranking surveys, it is less than $6,000 on average at a public four-year university. Four years of tuition and fees at a public institution average less than $25,000. In short, college is extraordinarily expensive -- for those who choose to attend extraordinarily expensive private institutions.
Contemporary discussions about student lending often fail to distinguish between two very different aims: the first is that of access, which is primarily important for low-income families; and the second is that of educational choice, which is most relevant for middle-income students weighing more expensive schools against cheaper, in-state public institutions.
Expansions in the federal loan program since the 1970s have primarily called upon taxpayers to help subsidize college choice and cash flow management for families without demonstrated need. The Middle Income Student Assistance Act (MISAA) of 1978 removed the income cap on loan eligibility, and today even students without subsidized loans still benefit from deferred interest payments and taxpayer-provided loan guarantees. In 1980, the Parental Loans for Undergraduate Students (PLUS) program began allowing parents to take out additional, separate loans under the Stafford program, with no restrictions on family income. By 2005, PLUS loans constituted 14 percent of Stafford borrowing.
Today, less than 60 percent of federal student aid is provided on the basis of need. In fact, Harvard University’s Bridget Terry Long has calculated that in 2003-4, nearly one in three dependent students from the highest income quartile took out Stafford loans and borrowed just as much on average as students from the lowest income quartile. It’s one thing to argue that taxpayers should help ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend college; it’s another thing entirely to suggest that they should subsidize the ability of students to attend any school they want.
A Forward-Looking Agenda
What does all this mean for the future of student lending?
First, and most obviously, the push for increased transparency in the industry, clear codes of conduct, and a more level playing field are all to the good. But transparency alone won’t change existing incentives -- and reactionary policy making could forfeit important opportunities.
For instance, Cuomo has expressed concern that lenders are engaging in differential treatment depending on the institution a student attends. However, should this be regarded as a problem, or an opportunity? If lenders are eager to serve some students, either because they appear to be good credit risks or because lenders are eager to cultivate banking relationships with prospects deemed likely to be high-earners in time, this may be a development worth celebrating.
As with any publicly nurtured market, the optimal course is the development of a mature, responsive and transparent private market, in which students’ needs are met, to the extent practicable, without public guarantees or funds. Obviously, given the fact that the private market will not serve all students, there remains an important role for public subsidies and loans, but that ought not blind policymakers to the fact that the contemporary loan sector can and will serve a substantial population of middle- and upper-class students without public subsidies or financing.
Second, there are few incentives for financial aid officers or guarantors, beyond benevolence, to be innovative or efficient, or to safeguard the interests of borrowers. While this model may have worked in the cloistered, paternalistic lending environment of an earlier time, recent headlines suggest the need to revisit assumptions about roles, rewards and accountability.
Third, if the federal mission is to ensure access to college rather than choice of college, better targeting of the allocation of funds is necessary. Policy makers might focus on using guarantees and subsidies to ensure access to loans for low-income students who are often higher credit risks and on establishing strong consumer protections for borrowers better served by the growing private loan industry.
Today, Washington seems to be leaning the other way. Earlier this year, in line with its Six for ’06 pledge, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives voted to cut interest rates on student loans in half, without any effort to direct this new benefit to low-income students. Given that the 6.8 percent rate for federal Stafford loans was already highly competitive with market interest rates, such untargeted measures seem a poor use of taxpayer funds.
Fourth, we should embrace the success of earlier efforts to create liquidity and credit availability in higher education. Private loans comprised just 6 percent of the loan industry in 1996-97 but now amount to roughly 20 cents of every dollar borrowed. The $17 billion that for-profit lenders are eagerly offering to college students suggest that a vibrant credit market has been created for at least part of the college-going population. The challenge is to understand how large of a population that sector can serve and what will most effectively help the students whom lenders deem less attractive.
The emergence of private lenders and the accumulation of data on borrower performance have led to new advances in pricing models and customer service. The risk is that private lenders use aggressive marketing to entice students into debt they are unprepared to handle. On the other hand, these providers also have the potential to experiment with pricing and repayment options and otherwise pioneer loan products that may be cheaper, more convenient, and more customized than those that exist today.
Fifth, we should rethink the machinery that impedes comparison shopping and makes loan providers less sensitive to student needs and repayment ability. The need to rethink the FAFSA and move to a more user-friendly and predictable system for determining student aid has been widely recognized. Another step is to push state-funded institutions to be more transparent about the provision of student aid.
A less familiar measure would address the risk that securitization encourages originators to issue loans with little concern for a student’s ability to repay. Loan originators package and resell loans to third party companies. In purchasing these “securities,” these third parties adopt the risks associated with those loans. This process of securitization diffuses loan risk and protects loan originators from the risk of ill-advised loans; this process may, in turn, encourage originators to make loans to borrowers who are uncertain credit risks.
This sequence of events has recently played out in the subprime mortgage industry. A corrective might be new guidelines requiring the lender or school in question to adopt a credit risk position in the loan, thereby incentivizing loan originators to exercise prudent judgment when originating loans and financial aid officials to more carefully monitor the quality of the loans their students are receiving.
While attending to student need, it is also important to foster student responsibility. It is widely estimated that students who graduate from college will earn $1 million more than their peers over the course of their working lives. There is, of course, a tension between ensuring that cost considerations not deter students from attending college while asking those who reap the benefits of higher education, rather than third parties, eventually bear the costs. Precisely how to balance this tension is an open question, but—frequent caterwauling about the put-upon student aside—it is not inappropriate to ask students to accept loans that will permit them to ultimately shoulder a substantial portion of the cost of postsecondary schooling, lest opportunity be mistaken for entitlement.