Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Department of Education Dishes Out More Baloney About Student Loan Default Rates

During World War I, it was said the British Army kept three different casualty lists: one list to deceive the public, a second list to deceive the  War Office, and a third list to deceive itself.

Something like that is going on with the Department of Education's latest report on student-loan default rates. According to DOE's latest report, which was released today,the three-year default rate actually dropped a full percentage point from 14.7 percent to 13.7 percent.

However, as Inside Higher Ed reported, DOE tweaked this year's report, adjusting rates for some institutions that were on the verge of losing their student aid due to high default rates. Students at these institutions were not counted as defaulters if they defaulted on one loan but had not defaulted on another. According to Inside Higher Ed, the adjustment will be applied retroactively to college's three-year default rates for the past two years.

Thus, as a Chronicle of Higher Education article noted it's "unclear whether [the adjustments for certain schools] or other factors affected the reported percentages."

The bottom line is this: As of today, we don't know whether student-loan default rates really went down or whether DOE's "adjustments" account for the decline.

Arne is full of it!
But it really doesn't matter.  As everyone in the higher education community knows, many colleges with high default rates have hired  "default management" firms to contact former students who are in danger of default and urge them to apply for economic hardship deferments.  Borrowers who get these deferments--and they are ridiculously easy to get--don't pay on their student loans but they aren't counted as defaulters.

Moreover, Arne Duncan's Department of Education has been pushing students to sign up for income-based repayment plans (IBRPs) that will lower students' monthly payments but will extend their repayment period from 10 years to 20 or even 25 years.  As I've said before, many people who obtained IBRPs are making monthly payments so small that the payments do not cover accruing interest. Thus, these people are actually seeing their loan balances get larger even though they are making payments and aren't counted as defaulters.

In short, we don't know what the true student-loan default rate is if it is defined as people who are not paying down their loan balances. But it is a lot higher than the 13.7 percent rate that DOE reported today.

Why is DOE tinkering with the numbers? One reason may be the high student-loan default rates among the HBCUs.  Last year, 14 HBCUs had three-year default rates of 30 percent--high enough to jeopardize their participation in the federal student loan program. This year, Arne Duncan announced that no HBCUs had default rates that would put them at risk of losing federal aid money.

Abrakadabra!  Arne Duncan tinkers a little with definitions and the student-loan default crisis is solved.

As Robert Cloud and I have argued in a forthcoming law review article, one of the three most important things that needs to be done to solve the student-loan crisis is to accurately report the true default rate.  And these are the other two things we must do: 1) provide easier access to bankruptcy for overburdened student-loan debtors, and 2) implement stronger regulations for the for-profit college industry.

But these things are not being done, and the student-loan crisis grows worse with each passing day. Like the British Army during the First World War, DOE doesn't want to know what the true student-loan default rate is and it doesn't want anyone else to know either.

References

Stratford, Michael. Education Dept. tweaks default rate to help colleges avoid penalties. Inside Higher Education, September 24, 2014.

Thomason, Andy. Student-Loan Defaults Decline in Latest Data, Education Dept. Says. Chronicle of Higher Education, September 24, 2014.




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