What looking at forgiven debt doesn’t tell us about the costs of income-driven repayment and federal student loans
Last week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report highlighting weaknesses in the Department of Education’s budget estimates for income-driven repayment (IDR) plans for federal student loans. The Department agrees with and is already working to implement many of the GAO’s recommended changes to its methodology, some of which will increase estimated costs, while others will decrease them.
Meanwhile, most of the media coverage of the report has focused on GAO’s projection that $108 billion of loan principal will end up being forgiven under IDR and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) for loans taken out between 1995 and 2017. However, this does not mean those loans will cost taxpayers $108 billion. The amount of debt forgiven is only one part of the equation to determine the net cost of IDR plans to the federal government. A borrower can receive forgiveness in an IDR plan and still pay more in total than she would have under a different repayment plan.
Consider a borrower with $40,000 in federal loans and $40,000 in adjusted gross income (AGI) in her first year out of school. She would pay almost $8,000 more in total in the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) plan than in a 10-year fixed repayment plan ($57,000 versus $49,000), even though she would receive nearly $8,000 in forgiveness under PAYE.* The GAO recognizes this fact in their report, agreeing that “it is possible for the government still to generate income on loans with principal forgiven, particularly if borrower interest payments exceed forgiveness amounts.” (p. 50).
Ultimately, the cost of the federal student loan program is determined by comparing how much the government lends with the amount that borrowers pay back and the cost of administering the program. Doing this, analysis of CBO data reveals the government is actually making money from the federal student loan programs. In fact, CBO estimates savings of $81 billion from federal student loans over the next 10 years alone, even after accounting for increased enrollment in IDR plans.
Access to affordable, income-driven payments and a light at the end of the tunnel are essential for borrowers in an era of rising college costs and student debt. The GAO reported last year that 83% of borrowers in PAYE earned $20,000 or less in annual income, and recommended that the Department increase outreach to help more struggling borrowers learn about and enroll in IDR plans. IDR provides real relief for borrowers and helps them stay on top of their payments. Data show that borrowers in IDR are less likely to default or become delinquent than borrowers in standard plans.
Nonetheless, while IDR helps ensure that federal student loan payments are affordable and helps prevent default, it neither reduces college costs nor ensures that students and taxpayers are getting value for their investment in college. More needs to be done to strengthen college accountability and reduce student debt. For example, students need better information on program costs and outcomes, and the gainful employment rule needs to be enforced to ensure taxpayers are not subsidizing career education programs that consistently leave students with debts they are unable to repay. You can read more about our national policy agenda to reduce the burden of student debt here.
* Note: these calculations assume that the borrower is single, her AGI increases 4% a year, and the average interest rate on her loans is 6.8%. Total amounts paid and forgiven are adjusted for inflation.