Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it ... he who doesn't ... pays it.
Albert EinsteinLiz Kelly, a 48-year old school teacher, owes the federal government $410,000 in student loans, which she will never pay back. How did that happen?
The New York Times article chronicled Kelly's story in this Sunday's Business Section, but the Times didn't adequately explain how Kelly got into this jam. My commentary for today is a forensic commentary on Kelly's situation.
Compound interest. As the Times story reported, Kelly didn't borrow $410,000 to finance her studies. She actually borrowed less than $150,000. Two thirds of her total debt is accumulated interest.
Albert Einstein observed that "[c]ompound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it . . . he who doesn't . . . pays it." As Liz Kelly's story illustrates, most people don't understand Einstein's simple observation about compound interest any better than they understand his theory of relativity.
Over the years, Kelly took out student loans to pay for her undergraduate education, graduate studies, child care and living expenses. She also borrowed money to get a law degree, which she did not complete, and a Ph.D. from Texas A & M, which she also did not complete.
Her graduate studies enabled her to postpone making payments on her loans, but she continued borrowing more money; and the interest on her loans continued to accrue. Some of her loans accrued interest at 8. 25 percent--a pretty high interest rate. When her total indebtedness reached $260,000, she consolidated her student loans at 7 percent interest--still pretty high.
Over a period of 25 years, Kelly received a series of forbearances or deferments, and she never made a single payment on her loans. Thus, it is easy to understand how the total amount of her indebtedness tripled over the amount she borrowed. In fact, as the Times pointed out, the annual cost of interest on her unpaid student loans is now larger than the total amount she borrowed for her undergraduate education!
Back in the old days, when people received interest on their savings, most people understood the principle of compound interest. People knew, for example, that money saved at 7 percent interest doubled in 10 years, and that money saved at 10 percent interest doubled in 7 years.
But no one gets interest on their savings any more, and perhaps that explains why many student-loan borrowers don't understand that their total indebtedness grows every year their loans are in deferment. Certainly Liz Kelly didn't understand this. The Times reported that she was shocked to learn that she owed $410,000.
No cap on student loans. Although Kelly never made a single payment on her student loans, the federal government continued to loan her money. In fact, in 2011, she borrowed about $7,500 to pursue a Ph.D. in education, even though her total indebtedness at that time was more than a third of a million dollars and she had made no loan payments.
As the Times writer succinctly observed:
A private sector lender approached by a potential borrower with no assets, a modest income, and $350,000 in debt who had never made a payment on that loan in over 20 years would not, presumably, lend that person an addition $7,800. But that is exactly what the federal government did for Ms. Kelly. Legally it could do nothing else.Obviously, a federal student-loan system that works this way is dysfunctional, irrational, and unsustainable. The feds should have shut off the student-loan spigot long before Kelly borrowed money to get a Ph.D.
The Charade of Income-Based Repayment Plans. If Kelly had accumulated $410,000 in consumer debt or a home mortgage, she could discharge the debt in bankruptcy. But discharging a student loan in bankruptcy is very hard to do. Indeed, Kelly might find it very difficult to meet the so-called "good faith" prong of the three-part Brunner test. After all, she continued taking out student loans over a period of 20 years and never made any loan payments.
Kelly's only reasonable escape from her predicament is to enroll in the federal government's loan forgiveness program, which would allow her to make payments based on a percentage of her income for a period of 10 years so long as she works in an approved public-service job. As a school teacher, she should easily qualify for this program.
But as Kelly herself pointed out, her monthly loan payments under such a plan would not even cover accumulating interest on the $410,000 she owes. At the end of her 10-year repayment program, her total indebtedness would be larger than it is now--easily a half million. That amount would be forgiven, leaving the taxpayers on the hook.
In fact, Kelly's situation is a perfect illustration for the argument that income-based repayment programs are not a solution to the student-loan crisis. Most people who participate in them--about 4 million people--will not pay down the principal on their loans. Income-based repayment plans are really just a penance for borrowing too much money--say one Our Father and three Hail Marys and go and sin no more.
The Times story on Liz Kelly concluded with the observation that Kelly's story is unusual, but that's not really true. As the Times itself observed in a recent editorial, 10 million people have either defaulted on their loans or are in delinquency. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reported in 2013 that 9 million people were not making payments on their student loans because they had obtained a forbearance or deferment. And about 4 million people are in income-based repayment plans.
Thus, at least 23 million people have loans in the repayment phase who are not making standard loan payments. So what should we do?
1) First, the federal government should not loan people more money if they are not making payments on the money they already borrowed. No one did Liz Kelly any favors by loaning her an additional $7,500 when she had already accumulated indebtedness of $350,000 and didn't have a prayer of ever paying it back.
2) There needs to be some cap on the amount of money people can borrow from the federal student-loan program. I'm not prepared to say what the cap should be, but surely it is bad public policy to lend money so that people can accumulate multiple degrees that do not further their financial prospects.
3) We've got to face the fact that income-based repayment plans--favored by the Obama administration, the New York Times, and the Brookings Institution--are not a solution to the student-loan crisis. Surely it is pointless to put Kelly on a ten-year income-based repayment plan that won't even pay the interest on her indebtedness.
As unpalatable as it is for politicians and the higher education community to admit, bankruptcy is the only humane option for people like Liz Kelly. Did she make some big mistakes in managing her financial affairs? Yes. But the federal government and several universities allowed her to make those mistakes; and the universities received the benefit of Kelly's tuition money.
No--we need to face this plain and simple fact: Kelly will never pay off that $410,000. And putting her in a long-term income-based repayment plan is nothing more than a strategy to avoid facing reality, which is this: the federal student loan program is out of control.
|Compound interest: The eighth wonder of the world|
Kevin Carey. (2015, November 29). Lend With a Smile, Collect With a Fist. New York Times, Sunday Business Section, 1. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/upshot/student-debt-in-america-lend-with-a-smile-collect-with-a-fist.html?_r=0
Editorial, "Why Student Debtors Go Unrescued." New York Times, October 7, 2015, A 26. Accessible at: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/07/opinion/why-student-debtors-go-unrescued.html
Rohit Chopra. A closer look at the trillion. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, August 5, 2013. Accessible at: http://www.consumerfinance.gov/blog/a-closer-look-at-the-trillion/