Subprime Student Loans

Federal loans should go to those who are most likely to benefit from higher education, not to everyone who can enroll, writes Jackson Toby.

December 23, 2009

An unintended consequence of making access to college an entitlement readily available to all high school graduates is that serious study in high school has become optional, even for those intending to go to college. Without an incentive to study diligently, many students are disengaged in high school and, as a result, underprepared for college. Some freshmen arrive at college thinking that having fun is the main reason they are at college and that the pursuit of knowledge should be available for when they have nothing better to do.

This situation came about relatively recently, partly the result of a change in the meaning of financial aid. Until World War II, financial aid referred to traditional scholarships that were awarded to academically meritorious students who mostly also were needy. The G.I. Bill, which financed college for discharged veterans of World War II, foreshadowed broader programs of federal grants and loans -- 20 at present from the federal government, 17 from the Department of Education and 3 more from other federal agencies -- that essentially universalized "financial aid." Few of them require better than mediocre previous or current academic achievement. As a consequence, about 30 percent of incoming freshmen at four-year colleges and over half the freshmen at two-year colleges are assigned to remedial courses in writing, mathematics, or other courses.

Nevertheless, federal grant programs, though supplemented by state and private grant programs, were never able to cover the financial needs of the millions of college students whose families could not afford the rising costs of attending college. So Congress established several loan programs, some indirect loans whose federal subsidies made attractive to banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions, and some financed directly by the Department of Education. Unlike Pell Grants and other federal grant programs for college students such as work-study programs for needy college students, which do not have to be repaid, loans must be repaid with interest after graduating from or leaving college.

Repayment is a problem for student borrowers. Many of these loans are subprime -- toxic in the same sense that some mortgages were toxic. They are even more likely to be subprime than mortgages are; the only collateral is usually the student’s future earning prospects after graduating, presumably enhanced by what he or she has learned at college. Student borrowers who do not learn enough from their educations to get jobs that permit then to repay what they have borrowed are likely to default on their loans, leaving taxpayers liable for them.

The student financial aid system was created by Congress not as an integrated system but in pieces: to do a variety of things for a variety of reasons. One major objective was to help youngsters from low-income families gain access to higher education. In the light of our egalitarian ideals, limiting educational preparation for good careers to children fortunate enough to have educated, affluent parents seemed immoral. A second reason for promoting college access for youngsters from low-income families is that, as Jefferson argued, persons of extraordinary talent may be born in humble circumstances, and giving them educational opportunities might enable the American economy to be more productive. The knowledge explosion during the 20th century demonstrated that ideas are extremely important to the "creative destruction" that a market system needs in order for the economy to grow. Institutions of higher education are where many new ideas are developed by adults through research and transmitted to youngsters through teaching. Politicians are referring to this economic growth function when they speak euphorically about student grants and loans as "investments." Realistically speaking, however, only a few federal grant programs -- and none of the loan programs -- seek out top-notch students who will presumably contribute most to the productivity of the American economy; others aim only to make accessible the college experience for children of lower-income families. The existing system is an uneasy compromise between these two objectives.

It is an uneasy compromise partly because promoting access for youngsters from low-income families sometimes conflicts with the meritocratic ideal of educating youngsters most capable of making great intellectual contributions to knowledge. A better compromise could be made to realize these two objectives by targeting the grants and loans devised by the federal financial aid program to needy students studying diligently in order to prepare to go to college. Instead they were set up mainly as incentives simply to go to college, prepared or not. Congress apparently assumed that the colleges would screen admissions appropriately or perhaps Congress was afraid to appear elitist by imposing meritocratic conditions. Thus, federal aid to college students removed most financial barriers to attending college. Applications increased as high school students heard the message that college attendance led to well-paid, interesting careers, and was now affordable. Many colleges expanded facilities and lowered academic standards for admission; virtually any high school graduate could get into some college. Students might have had an incentive to work harder in high school if they had had to demonstrate academic achievement both to gain admission to college and to obtain financial aid to cover expenses while enrolled. The unintended consequence of failing to set this requirement is students graduating from college without good job prospects, a problem made worse in an economy where the unemployment rate has now risen above 10 percent. The predictable result is a growing rate of student loan defaults.

I am about to propose to change federal loan programs to college students but not to change federal educational grants to college students. Why the difference? Both suffer from the same drawback; they entitle mediocre as well as able students to obtain federal financial aid. A different approach is justifiable because federal loans have much worse consequences for both students and taxpayers than federal grants.

Consider grants first. As gifts from American taxpayers that students do not have to repay, it is true that grants are a complete loss to taxpayers if students do not make contributions to American society as a result of going to college. On the other hand, grants involve less than half as much money as loans in the aggregate as loans. And even individual cases of defaulted loans, accompanied as they are by interest and penalties, can be very large burdens both to American taxpayers and to individual student borrowers. In a November 2009 case decided by a panel of five New York State judges who ruled against admitting a student borrower to the New York bar, the panel said, “His application demonstrates a course of action amounting to neglect of financial responsibilities with respect to the student loans he has accumulated since 1983.” The student owed nearly half a million dollars. This admittedly unusual case shows the advantage to both students and taxpayers of grants over loans. Because there are strict limits to the annual grants that students can receive from the Department of Education in any academic year, students cannot attend college whose costs are way beyond their means.

With the help of Pell and other grants, students can afford a community college even if they cannot get loans rather than an expensive private college, especially if they live at home and commute. Students who start at community colleges and are successful academically can transfer to four-year colleges for their junior and senior years. In other words, student grants ignore academic merit even though everyone knows that students who have not done well in high school are unlikely to do better in college. These grants are an expression of American society’s willingness to make higher education available even to students who are poor risks. Giving Pell Grants is a societal bet -- though a long shot -- that mediocre students are late bloomers and can do better scholastically in the future, not that mediocrity is acceptable in itself.

This bet is riskier for loans, and consequently I recommend that loans be treated differently. Congress and the President should start to require the Department of Education to make student loans contingent on the best available evidence of the student’s prospects for repaying them, such as good job prospects based on high school and college grades, curriculum in which they enrolled, and their credit ratings. Defaults would still occur. Predicting the earning potential of college students is chancy. However, many young people would almost certainly be saved from financial ruin, and American taxpayers would almost certainly not have to bail out as many subprime student loans.

As theologians have said, we mean well and do ill and justify our ill-doing by our well-meaning. The unintended consequences of good intentions apply to our system of financial aid to American college students, as it did to our providing mortgage money to borrowers who could by no stretch of the imagination have kept up payments on their mortgages.

To sum up: Federal grants give mediocre students a chance to become late bloomers. Loans, however, are expected to be repaid, and mediocre high school students with bad credit ratings are likely to default on their loans, causing serious financial problems for themselves and financial complications for the American economy. Targeting loans to students with good prospects for repaying them is more prudent financially and makes more sense educationally. Some illiterate high school graduates have already sued their high schools for educational malpractice; disappointed college graduates may follow suit. Some diplomas are "tickets to nowhere."


Jackson Toby is professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University. His new book, The Lowering of Higher Education in America: Why Financial Aid Should Be Based on Student Performance,was published last month by Praeger.


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