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Nearly a year ago, long before the current credit crunch, I spent some time reviewing the various methods of comparing prices on private student loans. I found that the "as low as" rates advertised on comparison sites don't tell the shopper very much. I also found that it is very difficult to get an actual rate quote for comparison purposes, because you have to complete entire applications, turn over personal details, and authorize credit checks. And those multiple credit checks from potential lenders can have the effect of hurting your credit score, because they create the impression that you are desperate to get a loan. Nonetheless, I persevered and got some actual interest rate and fee quotes, and the promissory notes to go along with them. With all the doomsday stories about the credit crunch, we decided it was time to see if we could confirm that even someone with good credit (still me, despite tempting fate with all those loan applications) would have a tougher time getting a loan or would face higher charges. So last week I went back to two of the lenders who had offered me loans last year, National City and Suntrust. I plugged in the same loan amount, degree program, and other details. Their responses seemed to take a day or two longer than last year, which may be a result of some of the layoffs in the industry. But both of them got back to me with rate quotes and promissory notes. The rate at National City was higher than last year, by the equivalent of about half of one percentage point (0.25 higher interest rate, 3.5% higher fee, 20-year term). But the rate at Suntrust was exactly the same as last year: the one-month LIBOR index plus 2.5 percentage points, with no fee. Now I'll see if I've ruined my credit rating by applying for these loans. Then I'll be able to test whether someone with bad credit can get a private loan. (Fortunately, even if my credit has been destroyed, I can always get Federal Stafford Loans because they require no credit check).

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By Deborah Frankle Cochrane, Research Analyst UPDATE: We’ve looked more deeply into the issue of community college loan program participation since this post was published. Please see the issue brief, Denied, for a more thorough analysis of this issue. ------------------ No one wants students to borrow unnecessarily or to borrow too much, but students who do need and want to borrow should be able to do so in the safest way possible. That is why the federal guaranteed student loan programs were created. The federal loan programs are entitlements, meaning that they were designed to be available to all students who apply for loans. Sure, loans are not as desirable as grants, but these aren't just any old loans. As one California community college financial aid administrator explains federal loan aid to students: "See what happens if you go into your bank and ask for a loan at the same fixed interest rate of the federal student loans. Explain that you don’t want to pay it back for a few years – or be charged interest in the meantime. And while you're at it, you want to be able to delay your payments in the future if you ever hit hard times." Clearly, the federal loan programs provide a more generous and safe way to finance an education than private student loans that offer none of these same benefits. But what about the colleges that don’t provide access to federal student loans? In our recent report, Green Lights and Red Tape, we documented the number of California community colleges that do not participate in federal loan programs, and questioned the decision to restrict access to this important source of financial aid. Looking at community colleges nationally, it is evident that this isn’t just happening in California: in ten states, half or more of community colleges do not provide access to federal student loans! Some colleges withdraw from the federal loan programs because too many former students have defaulted on their loans. There is a danger that excessively high default rates over several years can jeopardize a school’s ability to offer all federal aid, including grants. But under current rules, this is not an imminent threat to most community colleges. The vast majority of community colleges do offer loans and adequately manage their default rates, which suggests that withdrawal from the programs is an unnecessary precaution. Default rates are not the only rationale for restricting borrowing: financial aid offices often cite the need to protect students from their own choices. Their students, you see, may not fully understand the implications of borrowing. Some students, they explain, aren’t committed enough to their education to finance it through credit. We do not doubt for a minute that these sentiments reflect real aid office experiences and challenges. But if it's protection that students need, why take away the safest borrowing option, inevitably driving some towards risky private loans and credit card debt? Students and families rely upon college financial aid offices to provide informed advice about how to finance a college education. What should they make of statements like this (from a community college financial aid office’s web site), a typical example of how non-participating colleges address loan aid?

"Currently, our institution does not participate in the federal student loan program; however, you can independently get a private loan or non-certified loan to help pay for your educational expenses if you meet the lender’s requirements."

This isn't protecting high-risk students; it's throwing them to the wolves. Students and families trust college financial aid offices to provide informed advice about how to finance a college education. Neither this message nor the restriction of financial aid options helps the low-income and high-risk borrowers who financial aid offices serve.

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I graduated from college last June, and I still use my mother's house as my permanent address for important mail. I got a call from her one day yelling at me for not taking care of my student loans, because Nelnet had sent me letters with an insignia that resembled a government seal, and bright red "2nd attempt" and "final notice" warnings emblazoned on the front. I didn’t even know what Nelnet was six months ago other than "those people that keep sending me bogus offers." She couldn’t open my mail, and the "notices" kept piling up, so she was understandably concerned. The only problem? I hadn't taken out any student loans through Nelnet. They were just using scare tactics to get me to consolidate my loans through them. Fast forward to now. I’ve been working at the Institute for four months, and since I've been here, learning about the misleading marketing practices of some lenders has prevented me from becoming a victim. I know that it’s not a good idea for my roommate to cash the check he received in the mail as an enticement to consolidate his student loans, but others might not be so aware. A college degree does not equal a B.A. in Common Sense, much less Financial Literacy. While the entrance and exit counseling that financial aid offices provide to borrowers during college orientation, and just before graduation does not fully prepare most students for the onslaught of direct marketing they will receive about student loans, or all the decisions they’ll need to make during repayment. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's Direct Marketing Code of Conduct, would curtail many of these issues. It would prevent lenders from misrepresenting themselves as the government or as a student’s current lender. It also mandates that lenders mush inform borrowers of their federal loan options before taking out high interest private loans. Figuring out what to do with the rest of your life is surprisingly time consuming, so a little extra help from Congress would be a greatly appreciated protection on behalf of graduates everywhere.

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By Deborah Frankle Cochrane From Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick to Democratic Presidential Candidate Chris Dodd, the idea of making community college "free" has been thrown around quite a bit recently. College tuition is getting too expensive – so the affordability problem is solved, right? Wrong. We're glad that people are thinking about ways to make college affordable, but like the music club that offers you ten "free" CDs but charges an arm and a leg for shipping and handling costs, these proposals aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Average annual college costs at a community college add up to more than $12,000 after you factor in books, transportation, room and board, and other expenses (College Board). Tuition charges, which would be eliminated by these "free college" proposals, are only 18% of costs for a typical community college student (or only 4% in California, with the largest community college system in the country). While no college student would turn down free tuition, the price of textbooks and other educational expenses could leave students scrambling to cover the costs of "free" college. The reality is that a student drawn in by the promise of free college is less likely to consider and apply for federal and state aid. After all, who needs aid to go to college if it’s supposed to be free? They may think they’re already receiving aid. A needy community college student with grant aid to cover tuition plus other expenses is likely in a much better position than the same student with free tuition, but no extra aid. The message of "free" college is attractive, and we’re glad that national leaders are getting serious about making college affordable. But false promises can be hurtful if they serve to get students in the door without a way to succeed. The best way to make college free is to address true student costs and financial need by investing in financial aid for those who can’t afford it.

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Iowa legislative staff interviewed Robert Shireman after his testimony to the Iowa legislature's Government Oversight Committee.

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In our testimony to the Iowa legislature's Government Oversight Committee yesterday, we recommended that the state seek details on the rates charged to students by the Iowa Student Loan Liquidity Corporation, the nonprofit lender created by the state. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, agrees with us and suggests additional information that should be disclosed by lenders. He also dismisses nonprofits' claims that rate information should be kept secret:

"Ideally, I'd like to see lenders disclose the mappings from credit scores to their rate tiers and not just the tiers themselves. Add a FICO Score Range column to your table. The lenders insist that they cannot or will not do this voluntarily because it reveals competitive information. But it's really all about obscuring the mapping from borrower characteristics to rates. Yes, if lenders had to publish their tiering, there'd be more competition. But isn't that the point? If lender X knows that lender Y's cutoff for LIBOR + 2.0% is FICO 750, lender X can potentially undercut with LIBOR + 1.8% at FICO 760. By making the mapping opaque, they minimize the opportunity for competition. But, frankly, it also probably has a lot to do with making it harder for borrowers to shop around by forcing them to apply to obtain rate information. Lenders don't want clear information because student loans are a commodity, and if they let it behave like one, supply and demand will drive down prices." "It's especially egregious when a state agency protests against releasing detailed pricing models for competitive reasons. What they're saying is that if they release the data, their competitors will be able to undercut them on price. Why is that a problem? Either it will force ISLLC to cut prices, or their borrowers will go elsewhere to get lower prices. Either way ISLLC's mission to enable students to pay for college is met. Of course, more likely ISLLC is not adequately aligning pricing with cost, profiting from some students to subsidize others, and so will be prone to price competition on them. But the real problem is you have agencies thinking about profits first and public benefit second."

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By strong bipartisan votes, the Senate and House of Representatives passed the College Cost Reduction and Access Act in early September. On September 27, President Bush signed the legislation. Public Law 110-84 includes a new Income Based Repayment plan modeled on our Plan for Fair Loan Payments. Along with the substantial increase in Pell Grants, this is the most significant step forward that we have seen in years. For more information, see our fact sheets: Key Provisions in H.R. 2669 and Fair Loan Payments.

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By Deborah Frankle, Research Analyst The budget stalemate in Sacramento is about to have serious repercussions for new and returning college students in California. Approximately 266,000 students are expected to receive Cal Grants to help cover fees, books, dorm costs and other expenses, but the agency that administers the Cal Grant will not have the funds for the scholarships until--unless--the state budget is approved. And with classes starting in the next couple weeks, it looks unlikely that this will happen in time to help students with initial college expenses. We contacted several financial aid offices throughout the state to see how colleges were handling this, and it appears that the approaches vary in the different segments. At the University of California and some campuses in the California State University system, the colleges are dipping into other resources to front the aid with no discernable difference to students, at least in the short term. At other CSUs, fees covered by Cal Grants are not an issue because the college can allow the student to pay later, when the Cal Grant money arrives. However, the $1,551 that helps pay for textbooks, room and board, and other educational costs will not be dispersed. And it looks like community college recipients, whose only state grant funds come from the books-and-rent portion of Cal Grant B, won’t be receiving any Cal Grant money anytime soon. These Cal Grant B recipients will then be most affected by the budget crisis, and three out of four of them attend a community college (45% of all Cal Grant Bs) or a CSU (29%) – the systems with the least resources to help tide students over until grant money arrives. We estimate that as many as 137,000 students in these two segments alone may be impacted by this situation. Recent high school graduates in this population have an average family income of $20,573 for a family of 4. Older Cal Grant B recipients are even needier, with an average family income of $14,322 for a family of 3. These are not students who can simply make ends meet without the grants designed to help make college accessible to them. At best, the inability to purchase required textbooks and supplies early in the term means that students will be unable to keep up in class; at worst, they may drop out of college without having had a fighting chance to succeed. Our students deserve better.

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By Deborah Frankle, Research Analyst Private or alternative loans comprise a growing share of student loans, despite being more costly than federal student loans. Students and parents are often unaware of the differences between private and federal loans, and many borrowers don’t know which they have until they enter repayment. Unfortunately, despite required informational sessions about federal loans, the majority of college financial aid offices are not doing much to educate students about private loans. The National Association of Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) recently conducted a survey of how financial aid offices discuss alternative loans with their students, results of which can be found in their magazine, Student Aid Transcript. The survey results showed that 63% of financial aid offices do not address alternative loans at all during entrance and exit counseling, the information sessions required when federal loans are taken out and again when the student leaves school. And while 58% of financial aid offices do provide more information about financial planning and debt management than they are required to, only 25% offer in-depth counseling on alternative loans specifically. Barnard College recently became part of this minority by requiring students or parents who apply for a private loan to talk with the financial aid office before Barnard will certify a students' enrollment (and access to the loan). The goal of these conversations was not to discourage people from taking out private loans, but just to be sure that they understood the differences, cost, and potential consequences involved. Still, this simple policy change reduced alternative loan volume by 73% in one year. The college found that many who initially wanted an alternative loan were not aware of the associated risks and interest rates, and had not fully considered other viable options. Such a huge drop in private loan volume suggests that the students who were initially drawn to these loans might not have really needed them. Preventing unnecessary and risky borrowing is good for students, and should be a goal of all financial aid counselors. If the drop in alternative loan volume experienced by Barnard College is anything near the potential alternative loan decreases possible at other colleges, the 73 of college financial aid offices that do not currently guide students through these decisions should consider doing so.

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It is easy for consumers to forget just how expensive a few percentage points of interest really is. I made this point on Tuesday in my presentation at the annual conference of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Assume you have $10,000 in loans and the interest is deferred for four years of study, and then the loan is paid in equal installments over ten years:

  • For a subsidized Stafford loan (on which the government covers interest during deferment), the total interest you would pay during that 14-year period would be $3,810.
  • For an "unsubsidized" Stafford loan, the 6.8% interest yields total interest payments of $7,967.
  • If you have a private loan with an interest rate of 10%, you would pay $13,085 in interest on top of that $10,000 borrowed.
  • At 12%, the cost increases by more than $4,000, to $17,091 of interest.
  • At 14%, add another $4,000, to $21,469 of interest.
  • At 18%, you pay a whopping $31,921 of interest on top of the initial $10,000 borrowed, more than four times the interest on an "unsubsidized" Stafford loan.

These numbers, and the differences between them, would of course be even larger if you extend repayment beyond the 10 years used in this example. In an uncertain economy, these examples tell you just how valuable that fixed 6.8% maximum interest rate is on federal student loans (and a maximum of 8.5% on parent loans), whether they carry the "subsidized" moniker or not. If the numbers alone are not enough to convince, there are many other benefits to federal loans. In a NASFAA session I recently attended, Martha Johnston of Citizens Bank provided a helpful list, including:

  • Federal loans carry automatic full insurance in cases of death or disability. It's not something parents like to think about, but it happens.
  • Home equity loans (which may carry an interest rate that rivals the federal rate) put your home at risk.
  • Federal loans have unemployment and economic hardship deferments, as well as up to 60 months of forbearance.
  • No prepayment penalties on federal loans, and some ability to extend repayment without a change in the interest rate.
  • The interest rate on federal loans doesn't go up when rates in the economy increase. (Though it also doesn't go down if rates were to drop).

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