Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Brookings Institution researcher criticizes federal student-loan program: "It is an outrage"

Last month, Adam Looney of the Brookings Institution released a paper that is chock full of ideas for fixing the federal student-loan program. Looney began his paper with a withering condemnation of the program in its present form, which he accurately described as an outrage. I am quoting his critique verbatim, just putting his words into a bullet-style format:
  • "It is an outrage that the federal government offers loans to students at low-quality institutions even when we know those schools don't boost their earnings and that those borrowers won't be able to repay their loans."
  • It is an outrage that we make parent PLUS loans to the poorest families when we know they almost surely will default and have their wages and social security benefits garnished and their tax refunds confiscated . . ."
  • "It is an outrage that we saddled several million students with loans to enroll in untested online programs, that seem to have offered no labor market value."
  • It is an outrage that our lending programs encourage schools like USC to charge $107,484 . . . for a master's degree in social work (220 percent more than the equivalent course at UCLA) in a field where the median wage is $47,980."
All these failures, Looney charges, "are entirely the result of federal government policies." 

Nevertheless, for all its faults, Looney thinks the federal student loan program is worth fixing, and he makes several interesting reform proposals:

First, Looney recommends a cap on loans to graduate students. Currently, graduate students in the Grad PLUS program can take out student loans to pay the entire cost of their studies, no matter what the cost, which is nuts. 

This "sky is the limit" loan policy has led to the escalating cost of getting an MBA or law degree. In fact, the American Bar Association estimates that the average student at a private law school takes out  $122,000 in student loans. 

Second, Looney recommends applying an "ability-to-pay" standard to parent loans or eliminating them altogether. In my view, the Parent PLUS program should be shut down. It is insane to lure parents into financing their children's college education by taking on massive student-loan debt--debt which is almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy.

Third, Looney recommends the REPAYE program as the default student-loan repayment plan for all students. Unless a student opts out, all student-loan borrowers would be automatically enrolled in the REPAYE program when they begin repaying their student loans.

REPAYE, introduced by the Obama administration, allows student debtors to pay 10 percent of the discretionary income (income minus 150 percent of the poverty level) for 20 years rather than attempt to pay off their loans in the standard 10-year repayment plan.

In conjunction with automatic REPAY enrollment, Looney calls for voiding all fees, capitalized interest, and collection costs on current borrowers--costs and fees they wouldn't have suffered if they had been automatically enrolled in REPAYE. In addition, he proposes to cancel all student-loan debt that is 20 years old or older--without regard to the status of these loans.

Finally, Looney calls for a halt in wage and Social Security garnishment, and an end to the Treasury Offset program--the program that allows the government to capture defaulted borrowers' tax refunds.

These are all good proposals, but I have reservations. First, is it good public policy to automatically enroll all student-loan debtors in REPAYE--a 20-year income-based repayment plan? If we go that route, we will be creating a massive class of indentured servants who will be paying a percentage of their income to the government for a majority of their working lives.

Moreover, most people in those plans will never pay back the principle on their loans and could wind up with huge amounts of forgiven debt after 20 years, which would be taxable to them as income.

Secondly, Looney's proposals--all good, as I have said--are complicated, and the Department of Education has a dismal record managing just about every aspect of the student-loan program. For example, individuals enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program have been applying for debt relief, and the Department of Education has rejected 99 percent of all claims.

So these are my revisions to Mr. Looney's proposals:
  • Amend the Bankruptcy Code to allow distressed student-loan debtors to discharge their student loans in bankruptcy like any other consumer debt.
  • Shut down the Parent PLUS program immediately, and allow parents who took out Parent PLUS loans or cosigned private loans for their children to discharge those loans in bankruptcy.
  • Finally (and this is basically Mr. Looney's proposal) wipe out all penalties, fees, and capitalized interest for all 45 million student-loan borrowers and stop garnishing wages, tax refunds, and Social Security checks of student debtors in default.
My proposals, Mr. Looney's proposals, and for that matter, Senator Warren's debt-forgiveness proposal are shockingly expensive. Any policy that grants student-loan forgiveness to the millions of people who deserve it will cost billions--a quarter of a trillion dollars perhaps or even more.

But let's face facts. Millions of student borrowers are not paying back their loans under the present system. Indeed, Secretary of education Betsy DeVos acknowledged last November that only one debtor out of four is paying down principle and interest on student loans.

Let's admit that the student-loan program is a catastrophe, grant relief to its victims, and design a system of higher education that is not so hideously expensive.

Image credit: Quora.com


References

Adam Looney. A better way to provide relief to student loan borrowers. Brookings Institution, April 30, 2019.






3 comments:

  1. Great article as always. I followed the Looney proposals with interest.

    I will be sending you an article that tries to cost out the true federal costs of bankruptcy reform, debt forgiveness, etc. I also endorse hard loan caps on liberal arts degrees. We do need to ramp up Pell Grants as loans wind down...in other words, raise Pell Grants to $10,000 a year, which will cost perhaps $100 billion, but then make $50 to $75 billion fewer loans. Young people can live at home and go to vocational schools, get better jobs and have very little debt. This crushes the 4 year schools who do not have endowments, but someone has to lose.

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  2. Richard, so how long does the madness continue?

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  3. If we shut down the Parent Plus program, which I endorse, and if we take away the excess interest and fees that can accrue, then I think we will run into the following situation:

    an undergraduate has completed two or three years of school, and has used up the maximum federal loan amount ($57,000 in most cases). How will they pay for what it takes to finish their degree?

    I think we have to let them down easily and permit more loans. But then deny federal loans to freshmen, etc.

    And...

    If we stop the loans to many for-profit schools. we have to arrange in advance for credits to be transfer-able to decent schools. This may take federal regulation.

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