2017

Borrowers are now one step closer to having a more streamlined process to keep their federal student loan payments affordable. Currently, borrowers struggling with payments can enter repayment plans that base monthly payments on their income, but they are required to update their income information every year. More than half of borrowers miss the annual deadline and the consequences can be severe – unaffordable spikes in monthly payment amounts that increase their risk of delinquency and default, as well as interest capitalization that can add substantial costs.

For example, a single borrower with $25,000 in debt (6.8% interest rate) and $25,000 in adjusted gross income (AGI) would owe $60 a month under the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) plan, but would owe $288 a month – over four times more -- if he or she missed the income recertification deadline.

TICAS, along with bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both the House and the Senate, other advocates for students and consumers, higher education leaders, financial aid administrators, and loan servicers have all advocated to reduce the likelihood that borrowers end up in delinquency or default by automating the annual recertification process (what is commonly known as “multi-year consent”). In response, the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Education recently announced an agreement to allow borrowers to provide permission for their annual income to be updated automatically using their existing tax data. Borrowers will be able to revoke that permission at any time. The move received bipartisan praise.

Automating the annual recertification process is a common-sense improvement that will help borrowers stay on top of their student loan payments. This change will also reduce the paperwork burden on student loan servicers. Now, it is incumbent on the agencies to work together to promptly implement the agreement to make multiyear consent a reality for borrowers and servicers, and for Congress to ensure that they have sufficient funding to do so.

Soon to be reintroduced in the new Congress by Representatives Bonamici (D-OR) and Costello (R-PA), the bipartisan SIMPLE Act also takes aim at the cumbersome annual recertification process for borrowers enrolled in income-driven repayment plans. In addition to requiring that borrowers can have their income automatically updated each year, the bill would dramatically reduce defaults by automatically enrolling severely delinquent borrowers who have not made a payment in four months into an income-driven plan. With a record eight million federal student loan borrowers in default, and one in four borrowers either delinquent or in default, these common-sense measures are urgently needed.

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California Governor Jerry Brown last week released his proposed 2017-18 California state budget, which includes a proposal to phase out the Middle Class Scholarship (MCS) program. The MCS program, created in 2013, was designed to serve California students from families with incomes above typical Cal Grant income thresholds (above about $80,000 at the time) and up to $150,000 who don’t receive much other grant aid. For reference, median household income in California is just under $62,000 in 2015 dollars.

Since the program was created, we have raised questions about whether the money would be better spent on the lower income students who face the highest financial hurdles getting to and through college. We still believe this to be the right question. However, data from the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) show that some lower income students do receive MCS awards. During the 2015-16 academic year, about 6,300 students (13% of all MCS recipients) had incomes within the Cal Grant B income range (up to about $50,000 for a family of four), and an additional 12,700 students (26% of all MCS recipients) had incomes within the higher Cal Grant A range (up to about $90,000 for a family of four). We estimate that these 19,000 students – who represent 39% of all MCS recipients in 2015-16 – received up to 51% of MCS grant dollars.

Why is a program designed to help upper-middle-income students also helping lower income students? Because there are substantial gaps in the state Cal Grant program, which is designed to help lower income students pay for college. Most critically, there are not enough Cal Grants available for all students who apply and meet the financial and academic requirements. Whereas recent high school graduates are entitled to a Cal Grant, all other eligible Cal Grant applicants must compete for a very limited number (25,750) of awards. In 2015-16, there were 14 eligible applicants competing for every grant, with over 300,000 turned away. The CSAC data suggest that some of these students who qualify for but don’t get a Cal Grant end up getting an MCS grant instead.

The huge gap between the number of applicants eligible for competitive Cal Grants and the number of awards available contributes to the substantial affordability challenges facing low-income students. While not by design, the MCS program has helped to fill a narrow slice of that gap, and it is important that the Legislature protect this progress if the MCS does get phased out. Redirecting the $117 million annual MCS allocation to the better targeted Cal Grant program would result in over 18,000 more competitive awards per year, increasing qualified applicants’ chances of receiving a competitive grant from one in 14 to about one in eight. And redirecting $60 million – the 51% of annual MCS spending that we estimate goes to students with family incomes within Cal Grant thresholds – is the least that should be done, particularly if the goal of phasing out the MCS program is to protect financial aid for lower income students.

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