What no one noticed about CBO's recent projection: $81 billion in student loan profits

Headlines have raised concerns about the costs of providing borrowers with affordable monthly payments tied to their income, and more recently, concerns about the cost of providing relief to students defrauded by Corinthian and other predatory colleges. However, analysis of Congressional Budget Office estimates released last month reveal that CBO is projecting that the federal government will make $81 billion in profit over the next 10 years from student loans even after accounting for the costs associated with income-driven repayment programs.[1] That’s, on average, nearly $8 billion per year.

With the federal student loan program projected to generate billions in profits, the government should swiftly discharge the debts of defrauded students, many of whom are currently struggling to repay loans from schools that left them worse off than before they enrolled. Both the borrowers and taxpayers will be better off when these borrowers are able to move on to quality educational programs and productive work.

Going forward, our proposal for  one simple, affordable undergraduate loan includes an interest rate calculation that better reflects the government’s cost of borrowing and administering the loan program than the current formula (in place since 2013), which should reduce the likelihood that student loans generate consistently large profits for the government. We also propose streamlining the multiple income-driven repayment plans into one improved plan to keep payments affordable by capping payments at 10% of discretionary income and forgiving any remaining debt after 20 years, as proposed in the AFFORD Act introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley. However, when student loans do generate exceptionally large profits for the government, as is true today, we urge Congress and the Administration to use those funds to lower the cost of college for low-income students, rather than allow them to disappear into the federal budget.


[1] Calculations by TICAS and CBPP using data from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), August 2016 baseline. Figures represent projected budget authority (BA) between 2017-2026, including $1 billion in lower expected costs due to sequestration. Figures for the total student loan program include the Direct Loan program, FFEL program, and administrative costs.

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