All of us know people who appeared to radiate good health, but in reality they were terminally ill. Maybe we had a friend with clogged arteries but didn't know it. Perhaps a colleague had pancreatic cancer that hadn't been diagnosed. These people went about their lives as if they would live forever and then the diagnosis came and shortly after they were dead.
This is exactly the situation the Federal Student Loan Program is in. All across America, colleges and universities, both public and private, depend on federal student aid money to pay the bills. Yes, the student-loan default rate has doubled in recent years; and yes, the average amount borrowed goes up every year. And yes, a high percentage of college graduates are unemployed or under-employed and thus are unable to pay back their loans.
But, hey, no big deal. Colleges will continue to raise their tuition on an annual basis, and the government will continue loaning more and more money. But someday--and soon--those little signs of sickness will become symptoms of a terminal disease; and the whole Federal Student Loan Program will come crashing down.
And here's one of those little signs of trouble that portend the coming disaster. The New York Times reported recently that the Department of Education has made it easier for student-loan borrowers who defaulted on their loans to rehabilitate their loan status. All they have to do is make payments based on a percentage of their income. Under the new rules, borrowers can bring their loans back into good standing if they pay 15 percent of their income after subtracting 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Borrowers who are unemployed or who are working at or near the poverty level won't have to pay anything.
According to the New York Times, this new rehabilitation policy is even available to debtors who have not been approved for Income-Based Repayment Plans (IBRPs). Pretty sweet deal, right?
What the New York Times article did not say is that interest will accrue on the loan balances of most people who make income-based payments because their monthly payments will not be enough to pay off accruing interest or pay down the principal of their loans. So for most people who choose the income-based option for rehabilitating their loans, the amount of money they owe will grow larger.
And, as the Times pointed out, people who make income-based payments who have not been placed in federally approved income-based repayment plans won't have the benefit of having their payments applied to the 20- or 25-year IBRP repayment plan terms. In other words, people who make income-based payments who are not in IBRPs will fall into a kind of financial purgatory where they won't be considered defaulters but their loan balances will grow larger with each passing month.
I think it is interesting that the Times reporter who wrote about the new student-loan rehabilitation policy did not point out the pitfalls of the policy, probably because she wasn't aware of the policy's implications. Essentially, the federal government is postponing the day on which it will have to admit that millions of people are not making their student-loan payments or are making payments that are so low that their loan balances are actually growing. Apparently, the Obama administration and Arne Duncan's Department of Education are hoping to skip town before this mess blows up.
But it is going to blow up. As I have said many times, the percentage of people who are actually paying off their loans is a lot lower than the federal government will admit. The true default rate--the percentage of people who will never pay back their loans--is at least double the rate that the government reports every autumn.
In short, American higher education is much like France in 1940, just before the Germans invaded. It is living in dream world that supposedly will last forever. But it won't last forever. Eventually, this house of cards, which was constructed with federal student-aid money and which has been so profitable for the executives of the for-profit colleges, will come crashing down. And American higher education will be altered in ways we can't now imagine.
Ann Carrns. For Student Loan Borrowers in Default, Redemption Just Got Easier. New York Times, August 23, 2014, p. B6.