Sunday, July 15, 2018

Student loan rates are going up--compounding misery for suffering college borrowers

James Carville, who was once President Bill Clinton's political strategist, famously remarked: "It's the economy, stupid!"

But Carville's one-liner needs updating. For student-loan debtors, "It's the interest, stupid!"

And student-loan interest rates are going up. For undergraduate student loans, the rate has risen to 5.05 percent, a 13 percent increase over current rates.

For graduate students, the rate rose to 6.60 percent, up from the last year's rate of 6.0 percent.

And rates for Parent PLUS loans are going up as well. As of July 1, the interest rate on Parent PLUS loans is 7.6 percent.

A Forbes article suggests the increase is no big deal. An undergraduate who takes out $10,000 in federal loans this year will only pay $349 more over ten years than under last year's interest rate. That's less than three bucks a month.

But let's think again. Interest rates on student loans are pretty damn high; why should they go higher? Students taking out federal loans to finance their college education pay a higher interest rate than they would for a car loan or even a house loan. And remember, the current interest rate on a 10-year government bond is only 2.85 percent. So how does the federal government get away with loaning money to students' parents at an interest rate of 7.6 percent?

Here's the real problem with interest rates on student loans: the interest compounds on outstanding loans until the loans are paid off. For some student debtors, interest on their student loans compounds while they are in school, which means they will owe more money than they borrowed by the time they graduate.

Even more concerning, millions of borrowers don't find good jobs after they graduate and are unable to immediately start making their monthly loan payments. This forces them to apply for economic hardship deferments, which are notoriously easy to get. But borrowers whose loans stay in deferment for two, three, four years or more will see their loan balances go up markedly.

And the story is the same for people who enroll in 20- or 25-year income-contingent repayment plans (ICRPs). Almost all these folks are making monthly payments so low they are not paying down accrued interest. Consequentially, their loans are negatively amortizing, which means ICRP participants are seeing their loan balances get larger with each passing month, even though they are making regular monthly payments.

Remember Mark Meru, the dentist who borrowed $600,000 to go to dentistry school and now owes a million dollars? He's in an income-based repayment plan that set his monthly payment at less than $1,600.   But interest is accruing at the rate of almost $4,000 a month. By the time he finishes his 25-year repayment plan, Dr. Meru will owe $2 million!

Albert Einstein observed that compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. People who understand that earn it; and people who don't understand, pay it.

Apparently, millions of college-educated Americans don't understand compound interest. Otherwise, they never would have allowed themselves to get into debt so deep due to student loans that they will never pay off.

"It's the interest, knuckleheads!"


References

Zack Friedman. Student Loan Rates Will Rise 13% This Summer. Forbes.com, May 22, 2018.

Josh Mitchell. Mike Meru Has $1 Million in Student Loans. How did That Happen? Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2018.

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