Thursday, April 30, 2015

By the thousands, student-loan borrowers are dropping out of income-based repayment plans

Thousands of student-loan borrowers are dropping out of income-based repayment plans, the U.S. Department of Education admitted recently. As reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, almost 700,000 borrowers dropped out of the plans during the course of  just one year--57 percent of the total number of people who signed up for them.

Why did they drop out? DOE says they lost eligibility because they didn't file their annual income documentation--data the government needs to set borrowers' individual monthly payments.

What happened to those dropouts?  DOE says some of them signed up for economic-hardship deferments, some went back into standard 10-year repayment plans, and some slipped into delinquency.

This must be an astonishing turn of events for the Obama administration, which has aggressively promoted income-based repayment plans as a way to keep student-loan default rates down and give student borrowers some relief from high monthly loan payments. Most people who make monthly payments based on their income have lower payments than people who pay off their loans under the federal government's standard 10-year repayment plan.

There's a catch of course. Income-based repayment plans stretch borrowers' monthly payments out over 20 or even 25 years. Moreover, if borrowers' monthly payments are set too low, the payments will  not cover accruing interest, in which case student-loan debtors will see their loan balances go up rather than down, even if they faithfully make all their monthly payments.

Nevertheless, for student-loan borrowers who are unemployed. marginally employed, or simply borrowed too much money, income-based repayment plans are a lifeline because they can dramatically lower the amount of a student-loan borrower's monthly payments.

So what is the Obama administration doing to turn this situation around? According to the Chronicle,  the Department of Education will soon take over the process of notifying borrowers of their annual income-reporting obligations.  DOE is even consulting with "social and behavioral scientists" in order to craft more effective notices. Lots of luck, guys.

Personally, I was astonished to learn that so many people are falling out of income-based repayment plans--the most generous student-loan repayment programs that the federal government offers.. This development is simply another indication that the federal student-loan program is out of control.

Let's review the evidence one more time:

  • The two-year student-loan default rate (the percentage of students from the most recent cohort who default on their loans within two years of beginning repayment) doubled in just seven years, according to DOE's own data. In 2007, DOE reported a two-year default rate of 4.7 percent. In 2013, the two-year default rate was 10 percent.
  • Almost 9 million people in the repayment phase of their loans have economic-hardship deferments and are not making payments on their student loans. Meanwhile, their loan balances are increasing due to accruing interest.
  • About 1.5 million people have signed up for income-based repayment plans, but more than half of them have already dropped out due to the fact that they didn't file their obligatory annual income reports.
We can tinker with the student-loan program in many ways as the Department of Education and the policy tanks are now doing. But the fact remains that millions of student-loan debtors are under water financially and have basically dropped out of the economy. This reality is illustrated by the fact that more that half of the people in the generous income-based repayment programs are not bothering to file their annual income reports.

The only way out of this morass is to admit how bad the crisis is, which will require DOE to tell the truth about the student-loan default rate. Then we need to crack down on higher-education institutions that are exploiting college students. Finally, we must open up the bankruptcy process to allow honest but unfortunate student-loan debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy.

Bleep it, Dude. Let's go bowling. 

References

Robert Cloud & Richard Fossey, Facing the Student-Debt Crisis: Restoring the Integrity of the Federal Student Loan Program. Journal of College & University Law, 40, 467-498.

Kelly Field. Thousands Fall Out of Income-Based Repayment Plans. Chronicle of Higher Education, April 2, 2015.

















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