Student loan repayment

As Congress works to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the choices it makes on federal student loans are more important to students and families than ever before. Each year, over seven million undergraduate students take out federal loans. For many, borrowing to go to college may be the best investment of a lifetime. But others struggle to afford monthly payments, and each year more than one million students default on their loans.

In December, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed, along party lines, a bill to overhaul the Higher Education Act. The PROSPER Act would make ambitious and far-reaching changes to federal student loans, perhaps more than any other single piece of legislation since federal loans were first created. Despite its recognition of the need to simplify income-driven repayment (IDR) plans and efforts to improve loan counseling, the PROSPER Act would make college debt substantially more expensive and more risky for students.

The PROSPER Act includes a host of problematic provisions that will make it both harder and costlier for students to earn a high-quality certificate or degree. It will increase the cost of borrowing for students by charging interest while students are enrolled and pushing students towards riskier private loans. While it pursues the worthy goal of streamlining income-driven repayment (IDR) plans, its approach will force all borrowers to pay more, and the lowest income borrowers to make payments for a much longer time, potentially for the rest of their lives. At the same time, the bill eliminates student protections against low-quality or even fraudulent colleges - rules designed to protect students and taxpayers from investing time and money into colleges that overcharge and under-deliver - and makes it harder for harmed students to get back on their feet. These changes to accountability only increase the risk that students will default on their loans, and increase the burden taxpayers must shoulder for underperforming schools.

Each day this week, TICAS will publish a new post as part of a series called How the PROSPER Act Stacks Up for Student Debt. Topics will include:

Each post will explore how specific major changes proposed by the PROSPER Act will affect student debt, including how much students have to borrow, how much they have to repay, and how likely it is that they end up in default. The posts will also discuss better ways – many with bipartisan support – to solve some of the problems the bill aims to address, and describe how Congress can make the most of this key opportunity to help students graduate and reach their goals without overly burdensome debt.

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Earlier this week, the Department of Education announced a new process to resolve about 21,000 applications for borrower defense discharges, available to students whose schools have mistreated them in violation of state law. For some of these students, the resolution of their applications will lead to full student loan discharges and allow the students a fresh start. Other students, however, will receive partial discharges, meaning that their loan balances will be reduced but not eliminated. While the resolution of these claims is long overdue, we have both questions and concerns about how the amount of relief provided to each student is being determined.

The announcement explains a new approach for deciding whether students with valid claims will have their loans written off or only reduced. Students’ earnings will be compared against the average earnings of students from comparable programs that passed the gainful employment standard, a rule designed to ensure that career education programs are adequately preparing students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation. In effect, this approach would contrast what harmed students are earning against what they might have been earning had they attended a better program leading to the same credential in the same area, and discharge a proportion of their debt based on how their earnings compare to those of passing programs’ graduates. For example, “students whose current earnings are less than 50 percent of their peers from a passing gainful employment (GE) program will receive full relief.”

Even conceptually, this approach is highly problematic. A student lured into enrolling in and borrowing for a worthless program might see minimal to no relief if they were paying their bills by working in a completely unrelated job, earning minimum wage. This effectively punishes borrowers who manage to stay afloat despite being mistreated by their schools, akin to a “lemon law” that doesn’t require manufacturers to reimburse or replace cars if consumers can afford to buy a replacement car themselves.

Yet practical questions remain about how this process will work, and the answers may raise additional concerns.

First, how will the Department consider the borrower’s earnings, when calculating relief? The wording of the announcement seems to suggest that an individual student’s actual earnings would be used to determine the relief amount, but several news stories have indicated that the Department will instead consider the average earnings of graduates from the program the student had attended. But individual students may have different experiences, and many students will have incomes far lower than the program mean or median. This variation in students’ experiences is likely particularly common within gainful employment programs because the Department’s data sometimes combine multiple campuses.

Including only students who completed their program will likely overstate the earnings for all students who attended that program. Because noncompleters are likely to have lower earnings on average than the completers in the earnings data the Department is reportedly using to calculate relief, using completers’ earnings will drastically minimize the amount of relief being made available. This is an especially concerning issue for borrowers who attended Corinthian Colleges (a chain of for-profit schools known more commonly as Everest, Wyotech, and Heald) because a clear majority of Corinthian borrowers did not complete their programs. For example, College Scorecard data show that 61% of students borrowing federal loans to attend Corinthian schools left their programs without completing. 

 

The Majority of Students who borrowed to attend Corinthian schools never finished their program

 

Moreover, earnings data are not available for all programs. Most of the nearly 100,000 pending borrower defense claims come from former students of Corinthian Colleges, where the Department itself helped to document widespread, substantial misconduct of the sort that makes students eligible for loan discharges. In fact, the misconduct was so pronounced that the Department created an expedited borrower defense application process for students who had borrowed to attend over 700 Corinthian programs.  

The Corinthian Colleges schools that remain open were purchased by a nonprofit, Zenith Education Group, in 2015. This distinction between for-profit and nonprofit status is relevant because the gainful employment rule – data from which borrower defense discharge amounts will reportedly be pegged – applies to virtually all programs at for-profit colleges as well as certificate programs at public and nonprofit colleges. Despite the fact that Zenith agreed that the purchased schools would continue to comply with the gainful employment rule as a condition of the sale, the Department’s gainful employment data exclude virtually all degree programs from former Corinthian schools. As a result, there are no publicly available earnings data from these programs. Hundreds of the programs for which the Department had created an expedited borrower defense process were degree programs, and this week’s announcement is silent on how discharge amounts would be determined in cases where program-level earnings are unavailable.

If the Department’s process is intended to adjudicate borrower defense claims from mistreated students in a way that “makes them whole,” this approach misses the mark. It is also important to remember that even full loan discharges and refunds are still only partial relief for students who, in addition to having borrowed federal loans, may have used up eligibility for time-limited grants, taken out private loans that can’t be discharged, and invested their own time and money into their education. These are resources that students can’t get back. Figuring out ways to pinch pennies out of students’ federal loan discharges is ill-advised, and the Department’s plan for doing so is ill-conceived. 

 

 

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The gainful employment rule data the Education Department released in January make clear that some federally funded career education programs are consistently leaving students worse off – drowning in debt they cannot repay – while many other programs are not. We’ve previously blogged about how bad some of these programs are.

We just put together examples of schools located near each other offering the same program with very different results. The examples illustrate that location and type of program don’t explain abysmal outcomes. They also underscore the continued need for the gainful employment regulation to provide key cost and outcome information to students, warn students about failing programs that may lose eligibility for federal funding, and ensure that failing and zone programs improve.    

Amazingly, the for-profit college industry continues to defend programs that failed the gainful employment rule’s modest standards. The cosmetology trade association, for example, recently argued in federal court that a cosmetology program with a 14% job placement rate and a 100% borrowing rate should continue to receive unlimited federal funding. Why should taxpayers keep subsidizing such a program?

The gainful employment rule is based on the premise that students deserve basic information when deciding where to enroll, and that taxpayers should not subsidize programs that consistently underperform and leave students worse off than when they enrolled. This is just common sense, which is why so many student, veterans, consumer, civil rights, and other organizations, as well as state attorneys general, support the rule and oppose any effort to delay, repeal, or weaken it.

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For the first time since it was taken down due to security concerns in March, millions of student loan borrowers can once again use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to electronically transfer their tax information into the online application for income-driven repayment (IDR) plans. Using the DRT, borrowers will be able to apply for IDR and update their income online at StudentLoans.gov, without needing to separately provide their tax returns.

We thank the Department of Education and IRS for working together to restore secure access to this critical tool, and for doing so without creating burdensome new requirements that would make it difficult for low-income students to use the DRT. We look forward to a full restoration of the DRT by October 1st, when it will become available for students completing the FAFSA to qualify for financial aid in the 2018-19 year.

For more information about the DRT outage, see our previous blog posts:

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The Washington Post reports that the Trump Administration’s FY2018 budget proposal would eliminate subsidized Stafford loans that go to students with financial need. With subsidized loans, interest does not accrue while students are in school, for six months after they leave school, during active-duty military service, and for up to three years of unemployment or other economic hardship. The billions of dollars in savings from ending subsidized loans for new students would not be used to make college more affordable. Instead, this proposed rollback would be exacerbated by other dramatic cuts to programs that help students afford college and repay their loans.

Eliminating subsidized loans would increase the cost of college by thousands of dollars for many of the six million undergraduates who receive those loans each year. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that eliminating subsidized loans would add $26.8 billion in costs to students over 10 years.

The charts below illustrate how much more a student would have to pay if subsidized loans are eliminated and the student borrows the same amount in unsubsidized loans instead. The calculations assume the student starts school in 2018-19, borrows the maximum subsidized student loan amount ($23,000), and graduates in five years.

Using current CBO interest rate projections, eliminating subsidized loans would cause this student to enter repayment with $3,400 in additional debt due to accrued interest charges. As a result, she would end up paying $4,350 (15%) more over 10 years and $5,950 (15%) more if she repaid over 25 years.

The added costs to students would be even higher if interest rates increase faster than current projections. If the undergraduate Stafford loan interest rate hits the statutory cap of 8.25%, eliminating subsidized loans would cause this student to enter repayment with $5,700 in additional debt due to accrued interest charges. As a result, she would end up paying $8,350 (25%) more over 10 years and $13,450 (25%) more if she repaid over 25 years.

At a time where there is growing public concern about rising student debt and broad consensus on the importance of higher education and postsecondary training to the US economy, we need to be doing more, not less, to keep college within reach for all Americans.  For more information on TICAS’ proposals to streamline and improve federal student loans, see our summary of recommendations and our new report, Make it Simple, Keep it Fair: A Proposal to Streamline and Improve Income-Driven Repayment of Federal Student Loans.


Note: This borrower would only be eligible for a 25-year repayment plan if she borrowed unsubsidized Stafford loans in addition to subsidized Stafford loans and entered repayment with more than $30,000 in debt. The most recent data show that almost four in five (79%) undergraduates with subsidized loans also have unsubsidized loans. 

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This week, the Department of Education shared new information about its plans to restore access to the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), a tool that helps millions of students and borrowers easily transfer their tax information into the online FAFSA and the online application for income-driven repayment (IDR) plans for federal student loans. The tool has been unavailable for more than two months after being taken offline due to security concerns. Facing pressure from governors, legislators, colleges, financial aid professionals, and student advocates, the Department has committed to getting the tool secured and back online by the end of this month for the over four million borrowers who use it for IDR. However, the Department and IRS will not have the DRT back up for FAFSA use until the next application year starting in October, an extended outage that will continue to affect millions of students.

The DRT will be restored for student loan borrowers by the end of May. We thank the Department for committing to this timeline, since new data show that about 4.5 million borrowers use the DRT to apply for IDR plans or annually update their income information in those plans. As detailed in our earlier blog post and a recent MarketWatch piece, the DRT outage is more than just an inconvenience for borrowers. While the DRT is down, borrowers with taxable income cannot complete the process of applying for IDR or updating their income online at StudentLoans.gov. Borrowers who miss annual deadlines to update their income information can face unaffordable spikes in monthly payment amounts that increase their risk of delinquency and default, as well as interest capitalization that can add substantial costs.

Students still applying for financial aid for the upcoming 2017-18 year will not have access to the DRT at all. This extended outage will impact millions of students, as more than half of all aid applicants (more than 11 million students) applied for aid on or after April 1 in recent years. Many of these applicants used the DRT, and a greater share were expected to use it in 2017-18 due to recent improvements to the FAFSA timeline.  

For students applying for federal financial aid for the 2018-19 year, the Department and IRS are on track to restore access to the DRT by the time the FAFSA opens on October 1, and to do so in a way that protects access for low-income students. This is encouraging news, particularly since new data show that roughly half of all FAFSA filers use the DRT to transfer tax information from the IRS. As discussed in our earlier blog post, the DRT outage is causing millions of students to face a more complicated, daunting, and time-consuming process to apply for aid. Delays in that process can prevent students from getting their financial aid in time to enroll in college.

Given the importance of the DRT in helping students access financial aid and manage their loan payments, we echo the National College Access Network’s statement that the DRT outage “is an emergency, not a mere inconvenience.” It is essential to quickly restore the DRT in a way that balances student access and data security.

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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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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.

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Today the Administration announced a multifaceted plan to protect and support student loan borrowers. The announcement includes commitments to improve loan counseling, institute clear servicing standards and disclosures, and to help more borrowers enroll in income-driven repayment plans.

Students should have the best information in the right format to make critical decisions about how to pay for college. Loan counseling can play an integral role in helping student loan borrowers make wise decisions and avoid delinquency and default. The Department of Education’s online loan counseling tools serve 6.5 million students a year, and the Administration’s plan to make improvements based on input from borrowers and other stakeholders will help more students make the choices that are right for them. For TICAS’ recommendations to improve loan counseling that do not require legislation, click here.

Student loan servicers are paid more than $800 million a year to help borrowers access the repayment options, protections, and benefits that come with federal loans. Yet even so, a record 7.9 million borrowers are in default, and there are more than two million federal student loan borrowers over 90 days delinquent. Servicing failures, exacerbated by a lack of standards and misaligned incentives, are widespread. Once implemented and enforced, the standards outlined by the Administration – as well as the commitment to seek input on them – will make a huge difference for borrowers.

Providing borrowers in repayment with better information at the right time is a clear-cut next step. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Payback Playbook would share personalized information with borrowers to improve their understanding of repayment options, a positive move in the right direction. For TICAS’ recommendations on student loan servicing, click here.

Strengthening servicing standards by fully implementing the Administration’s new Student Loan Borrower Rights would improve servicing for borrowers in the following ways: (1) ensure servicers provide accurate and actionable information; (2) establish a clear set of expectations for minimum requirements for communication and services with borrowers; and (3) hold servicers accountable to borrowers and taxpayers. And, when servicers fail to do the right thing, the Department’s forthcoming complaint system can help ensure that borrowers’ concerns are addressed and resolved. We have recommended that the complaint system be public and searchable, connected to the complaint systems used by other federal and state agencies, and made clearer and easier to use.

Lastly, a key part of ensuring that fewer borrowers default on their loans is boosting borrower awareness of repayment plans that tie monthly payments to income. Our Project on Student Debt developed the policy framework and led the campaign that resulted in enactment of the Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan, which has been available to borrowers since 2009. The Administration announced a new goal today to enroll two million more borrowers into income-driven plans like IBR. Although income-driven repayment is not the best choice for every borrower, clearly many more borrowers could benefit from tying their monthly payments to an affordable share of their income and knowing that they will not be repaying their student loans for the rest of their lives. The Debt Challenge, the Administration’s campaign to promote employer outreach and boost awareness of repayment options, will help even more borrowers make better informed repayment decisions. We will do our part to get the word out by contacting more than 100,000 subscribers to our website, IBRinfo.org, and sharing information with our Twitter followers and Facebook friends to remind them about income-driven repayment plans.

As the Administration moves forward on taking action to help borrowers manage student debt, we look forward to seeing these steps, tools, and standards put in place so that fewer borrowers end up delinquent or in default.

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Yesterday, Corinthian Colleges abruptly closed its remaining 30 campuses in California, Arizona, Hawaii, New York, and Oregon, where 16,000 students were enrolled. While nothing can give these students back the time they spent at Corinthian, they deserve a fresh start.

The good news is that the Higher Education Act (HEA) provides for the discharge of students’ federal loans if a school closes before students finish their programs. In fact, the HEA says “the Secretary shall discharge” students’ loans, and the Education Department’s regulations specify that the Secretary will mail each borrower a discharge application and an explanation of the qualifications and procedures for obtaining a discharge.

The bad news is that the HEA does nothing similar to restore students’ eligibility for Pell Grants, which needy students can receive for no more than six academic years. Because the law doesn’t reset the clock on a student’s eligibility for Pell Grants when a school shuts down, low-income students may not be eligible for enough aid to complete a program anywhere else.

For example, the students enrolled in the pharmacy technician certificate program at Corinthian’s Everest College in West Los Angeles – which cost more than $11,000, and had a 25% job placement rate and a 35% student loan default rate – will be able to get their federal loans discharged, but they won’t get their Pell Grant eligibility restored to what it was before they enrolled at Everest. As a result, they may not have enough Pell Grant eligibility left to complete the much lower cost pharmacy tech program at the nearby community college. 

For the more than 12,000 Pell Grant recipients estimated to be enrolled at the Corinthian campuses that suddenly closed yesterday, this is an oversight needing swift correction.

How did Pell Grants get left out of the closed-school provisions? Prior to 2008, students could receive Pell Grants for as long as they were making satisfactory academic progress towards a degree or certificate. So if a school closed before a student could finish, the student didn’t need to worry about their Pell Grant eligibility running out. 

However, in 2008 Congress limited future Pell Grant eligibility to nine years.  Then, in 2011 Congress lowered this lifetime limit to six years and applied the new limit immediately and retroactively to all students, including those just a semester away from completing their degrees.

Unfortunately, Congress didn’t amend the HEA to restore students’ eligibility for Pell Grants when a school closes before they can finish. This was likely an oversight, not a conscious policy decision. As a result, the lowest income students at Corinthian campuses may not have enough Pell Grant eligibility left to complete a program at another school. 

It’s time to fix this harmful omission. In the last Congress, Representative Janice Hahn introduced the Protecting Students from Failing Institutions Act (HR 4860) to restore Pell Grant eligibility for students at campuses that close. We recommend going a step further: Pell Grant eligibility should be restored for any student who has their federal student loans discharged, either because their school closed or because of school fraud. Current and former Corinthian students deserve a true fresh start and the chance to get a meaningful degree or certificate at another school.  

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