Student loan repayment

In May, we wrote about the 114 career education programs from which more students default than graduate (it’s actually even worse than that since they have more defaulters in one year than graduates over two years). With Corinthian Colleges now preparing to sell or close all of its campuses, it is worth noting that Corinthian runs 25 of the 114 programs with more defaulters than graduates.

These programs are shockingly bad. Everest College Phoenix Associates’ programs in Securities Services Administration and Management, and in Business, Management and Marketing both had more than three times as many defaulters as graduates. Everest University in Tampa has an Associate’s degree program in Computer and Information Sciences that also has three times as many defaulters as graduates.

An effective gainful employment regulation would help protect students and taxpayers from schools like Corinthian. By enforcing the law requiring career education programs to prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation, a strong rule would hold programs to clear outcome standards and measure their performance against those standards regularly. It would force the worst performing programs to improve or lose eligibility for funding before burying countless students with debts that may haunt them for the rest of their lives.

We and more than 50 other organizations submitted written comments urging the Education Department to improve its draft gainful employment rule to better protect students and taxpayers, including by requiring schools to provide financial relief for students in programs that lose eligibility, limiting enrollment in poorly performing programs until they improve, and closing loopholes and raising standards. If a rule with the changes we called for had already been in effect, Corinthian would long ago have had to rapidly improve or close programs in a way that better protected students and taxpayers.

The final gainful employment rule will be too late to protect Corinthian students, but it is not too late to protect the millions of students enrolling in other schools’ career education programs and the taxpayers who subsidize them.

Click here for a sortable list of the 114 programs with more defaulters in one year than graduate over two years. To read the New York Times editorial on our May blog post, click here.

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The Obama Administration is moving forward in defining what it means for career education programs to “prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” This requirement – which applies to programs at public, nonprofit, and for-profit colleges – has long been in federal law, but, without a rule defining what it means, the Department has been powerless to enforce it.

The draft rule would measure career education programs’ outcomes in two ways. First, the debt burdens of program graduates who received federal aid would be compared to their later earnings. Second, students’ ability to repay their loans – including both graduates and noncompleters – would be measured through a program-level cohort default rate.  Programs where graduates’ earnings don’t justify typical levels of debt, and those where borrowers too frequently default on their loans, would lose eligibility for further federal grants and loans unless the programs improve.

The data released by the Department in conjunction with its proposed rule are alarming. They couldn't make a better case for why the rule is desperately needed and must be strengthened to provide meaningful protections for students and taxpayers.

To illustrate:  Of the 4,420 programs in the dataset with complete data (meaning that both students’ debt burdens and default rates are calculated), there are 114 programs where the data show more defaulters than graduates.  In other words, students receiving federal aid to attend these programs are more likely to find themselves unable to repay their debt than they are to complete the credential they sought.  It’s also important to understand that this very much understates the problem at these programs.  That’s because, due to the way that debt burden and defaults are measured, these figures represent the defaults from one cohort year (those who entered repayment in 2009) compared to two years’ worth of completers (those who completed in either 2008 or 2009).

Here are a few facts about these 114 programs with more defaulters than graduates:

  • All 114 are at for-profit colleges, and most (82) are associate degree (AA) programs.
  • They include a sizable share of measurable programs in some fields. Seven of the 13 AA programs in ‘securities services administration/management’ have more defaulters than graduates.  Six of the 17 ‘accounting technology/technician and bookkeeping’ AA programs have more defaulters than graduates.  And the same is true for all three of the AA programs in ‘criminalistics and criminal science.’
  • Almost two dozen of them (23 of the 114) fully pass the proposed rule’s modest standards. Of the others, 14 are “in the zone” – a program limbo for those not good enough to pass and not bad enough to fail outright – and 77 fail.

The fact that 20% of the programs leaving more students in default than with credentials pass the Department’s proposed tests clearly shows that the tests aren’t strong enough. And even the 68% of programs that fail outright would remain eligible for federal funding under the proposed rule unless they failed again. What is also crystal clear from the data is that the stakes for students are high:

  • Many of the programs are huge: 33 of the 114 programs had more than 1,000 students who entered repayment in a single year, and 6 of them had more than 5,000 borrowers who entered repayment in that year.
  • There are seven programs where the number of defaulters exceeded the number of completers by more than 1,000.  All seven are at the University of Phoenix.

These are parasitic programs, consuming resources to the detriment of students and taxpayers. Reasonable people may disagree on certain aspects of the Department’s proposal, but the need to strengthen the rule so programs like these must shape up should not be one of them. Click here for a sortable list of the 114 programs with more defaulters in one year than graduate over two years. To read the New York Times editorial on our May blog post, click here. - Debbie Cochrane

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The U.S. Department of Education announced this week that it’s reaching out to about 3.5 million federal student loan borrowers who are carrying higher than average debt or showing signs of financial distress. The goal of the Department’s email campaign is to make sure these borrowers know about income-driven repayment options that might make their monthly payments more affordable and keep them from defaulting.

We’re thrilled that this piece of President Obama’s college affordability plan is being put into action. With rising student loan default rates and a job market still recovering from the financial crisis, the need is clearly urgent. Our Project on Student Debt developed the policy framework and spearheaded the coalition to create Income-Based Repayment (IBR), which became available to federal loan borrowers in 2009. We have since repeatedly called on the Department to do more to make sure borrowers are aware of IBR, including targeted outreach along the lines of this new effort.

Simply put, people can’t benefit from IBR and related plans like Pay As You Earn unless they know about them. They need timely, accurate, and usable information before extended forbearances cause their debts to balloon, delinquencies damage their credit scores, or defaults lead to even more severe consequences.

With that in mind, we think the Department could easily increase the impact of its outreach by taking the following steps. We suggest a couple of improvements that should make borrowers more likely to act on the important emails they’re getting from the Department:

Tell borrowers about the light at the end of the tunnel. The Department’s sample outreach email fails to mention that after 20 or 25 years of repayment in an income-driven plan, any remaining debt can be discharged.  This is a crucial feature of income-driven plans. But the sample email makes it sound like there is no time limit on payments, unless you qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. It says, “When you make payments based on your income, your loans are paid off over a longer period of time than the standard 10-year plan. While this reduces your monthly payment amount, it also increases the total amount you pay over time. But if you work in public service, you may qualify to have your remaining loan balance forgiven after 10 years of payments.” The fix? The Department’s outreach should tell borrowers that income-driven plans not only lower your payments, they also cancel any debt remaining after 20 or 25 years in repayment.

Make it easier to for borrowers to get income-driven payment estimates. The sample email also provides a link for borrowers to view estimates of payments in income-driven plans. But when you click on “repayment estimator” you find yourself on the Department’s generic home page for federal loan borrowers: studentloans.gov.  The only way to see your estimated payments under all plans at once is to sign in to this site using your PIN, but there is no mention of a “repayment estimator.” If you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, you can easily get lost. The fix? Make the link go directly to the repayment estimator, and ultimately make the estimator available for prospective borrowers who don’t have PINs.  

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The U.S. Department of Education has released new final regulations that strengthen key protections for distressed borrowers with federal student loans. The regulations also make conforming revisions to reflect legislative changes related to student loans.

The new regulations will make it easier for borrowers to get out of default and repay their loans by ensuring that “reasonable and affordable” payments to rehabilitate a loan are, in fact, reasonable and affordable. Consistent with the law, the final regulations specify that the rehabilitation payment amount must not be a required minimum payment, a percentage of the borrower’s total loan balance, or an amount based on other criteria unrelated to the borrower’s total financial circumstances.

In response to public comments on the draft rules submitted this summer by TICAS and others, the final rules require that borrowers seeking to rehabilitate defaulted loans be initially offered a payment amount based on what they would pay in Income-Based Repayment (IBR), which caps monthly payments at 15 percent of a borrower’s discretionary income. The draft rules would have allowed payments based on the IBR formula only after borrowers were offered and then rejected a different amount calculated by servicers and based on a long and complex form. In a change of course, the Department ultimately required payments based on the IBR formula to be offered first, in response “to the numerous comments we received expressing concerns about the amount of personal financial information a borrower requesting loan rehabilitation would [otherwise] have to provide.”

In addition, the final regulations permit borrowers who have been delinquent on their loans for at least 270 days to be placed in forbearance based on an oral rather than a written request. Borrowers in forbearance don’t have to make payments, but their interest keeps accruing and then capitalizes when the forbearance ends, leaving them owing even more.

To try to prevent institutions from pressuring borrowers to request oral forbearances during the period when institutions are held accountable for student loan defaults, the rules limit any forbearance granted based on an oral request to 120 days and prohibit consecutive 120-day forbearances. In another improvement over the draft proposal, borrowers who are placed in forbearance based on an oral request will receive written information, as well as an oral explanation, of their repayment options and how they can exit forbearance, as TICAS had recommended. The Department is allowing loan holders, colleges, and guaranty agencies to implement this rule on November 1, even though they are not required to comply until next July.

The Department publicly acknowledges the evidence “that some institutions are aggressively pursuing their former students to compel them to request forbearance on their loans, primarily during the cohort period when the institution is accountable for student loan defaults.” As detailed in our public comments, it’s well documented that some for-profit colleges have engaged in such abuses at borrowers’ expense while receiving billions of dollars in federal student aid. TICAS has identified steps the Education Department should immediately take to prevent such abuses.

Soon to be published in the Federal Register, the new rules also improve students’ access to loan discharges when schools shut down before they can finish their studies.  

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Starting tomorrow (Friday, December 21), recent college graduates with federal student loans can apply to lower their monthly payments using the Pay As You Earn plan. This new repayment plan has a lower monthly payment cap than the more widely available Income-Based Repayment (IBR) plan. Pay As You Earn also provides forgiveness after 20 years of payments, rather than 25 years in IBR.

As with any repayment plan that allows you to pay less per month, it is possible to pay more in the long run under Pay As Your Earn or IBR due to accumulated interest. But for millions of Americans currently struggling to repay their loans, these plans ensure that payments will be manageable, help prevent delinquency and default, and provide a much-needed light at the end of the tunnel.

Countering the effects of recession

Pay As You Earn is designed to help recent students entering the job market for the first time in today’s tough economy. Only those who took out their first federal loan after September 30, 2007 and had at least one disbursement after September 30, 2011 will qualify.

The negative effects of starting your career in a down economy can last more than a decade. According to a recent study from the Economic Policy Institute:

Research shows that entering the labor market in a severe downturn can lead to reduced earnings, greater earnings instability, and more spells of unemployment over the next 10 to 15 years. […] In short, the labor market consequences of graduating in a bad economy are not just large and negative, but also long-lasting.

Earlier this year we found that two-thirds of the Class of 2011 had loans, and their average debt was $26,600 for a four-year degree. Yet half of recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. Compared to students who enter the job market in better economic times, recent and soon-to-be graduates are likely to face lower earnings and higher unemployment for many years to come.

Helping lower income borrowers

Borrowers with modest incomes, who need help the most, will get significant relief from Pay As You Earn. As we noted in a recent post, a student who graduated in 2012 or later with $26,600 in federal loans and earns $25,000 a year (adjusted gross income) would pay one-third less each month in Pay As You Earn than in the current IBR plan. The same is true for a married borrower with the same debt who just completed a bachelor’s degree, has two children, and earns $45,000.

The Department of Education reports that more than 1.3 million borrowers are already enrolled in IBR, and nearly 90% of them have incomes under $50,000.

Applying made easy

A new electronic form at Studentloans.gov makes it easy to apply online for Pay As You Earn, IBR, and related repayment plans. Borrowers can even ask to be enrolled in whichever income-based plan they qualify for that has the lowest monthly payment.

Together, these plans can help millions of borrowers keep their student loan payments affordable even in tough times.

NOTE:  TICAS and its Project on Student Debt developed the policy proposal that formed the basis of IBR, which recommended forgiveness after 20 years of payments. Dozens of organizations representing students, consumers, colleges, and lenders supported the goals of that proposal. Learn more about IBR and Pay As You Earn at IBRinfo.org.

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The Department of Education released a lot of new information today pertaining to its July 26 proposal to define “gainful employment.”

The data is extensive and eye-opening. One thing that jumped out at us right away was the difference in student loan “repayment rates” by type of college. At public colleges, 54% of borrowers were paying down the principal on their loans, compared to 56% of those from private non-profit colleges. But at for-profit colleges, only 36% were paying down their student loans – which means that almost two-thirds of them couldn’t. At the University of Phoenix alone, that amounts to almost $2.8 billion in federal student loan debt that isn’t being paid down.

Read the data and analysis 

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On July 1, 2010, the U.S. Department of Education implemented two fixes to the Income-Based Repayment program which make borrower's student loan payments more affordable: Married Borrowers: When married couples both have federal student loans, they will no longer face higher IBR payments than their unmarried peers. For married borrowers who file their taxes jointly, lenders will factor in the couple's total federal student loan debt, as well as their total income, to calculate payments. Originally, IBR did not recognize that joint income has to cover both spouses' federal loan payments, resulting in payment requirements up to twice what two equivalent single people would have to pay. Baseline Debt: IBR eligibility will be based on either the balance when the loan first entered repayment or on the current loan amount, whichever is greater. This will allow borrowers whose loan balances have increased (often due to accrued interest during periods of deferment or forbearance) to qualify based on what they actually owe.

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On Wednesday, September 23, the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law held the first ever hearing about student loans and bankruptcy, "An Undue Hardship? Discharging Student Loans in Bankruptcy." Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success testified as an invited witness.

Over the past decade, the private student loan market expanded dramatically along with the overall credit market, fueled by easy access to capital. As with subprime mortgages,lenders marketed private loans very aggressively and financed them primarily through securitization, maximizing short-term profits regardless of borrowers’ actual ability to repay. There were no regulations to limit the dangers of private loans or to restrict the way they targeted young people with no borrowing experience. Prospective borrowers were not even entitled to clear information about actual terms and costs that would enable them to shop around before signing a promissory note. Private student loans remain largely unregulated, Congress included some basic disclosure requirements in the HEOA will go into effect early next year.

Private student loan volume began mounting well before the change in bankruptcy law: it increased eight-fold between 1997 and 2005, and it peaked at $19 billion in academic year 2006-07. Student Lending Analytics, which monitors industry trends, projects that volume in 2009 will be $10-12 billion. This drop parallels changes in the larger economy due to the credit crunch, which hit the private loan industry hard in the fall of 2008. While quite a few lenders left the market and private loans are now more likely to require a co-signer and a higher credit score than in recent years, private student loans are still available. Sallie Mae continues to make a third of its profits from private loans, and they along with Chase, Citibank and other major lenders offer and actively promote their private loan products. As these lenders work to expand their market share, credit unions have entered the field and seek to position themselves as a source for more affordable private loans.

In a particularly disturbing development, some large, for-profit colleges have begun making a lot of their own private loans directly to high-risk students. For example, in a recent call with investors and analysts, Corinthian Colleges, Inc. said it plans to make $130 million of such loans in the current fiscal year, on top of $120 million last fiscal year. They fully expect a shocking 56 to 58 percent of the borrowers to default. Yet they consider these loans good investments because they will increase enrollment and with it a profitable flow of federal grant and loan dollars that outweighs the planned writeoffs. Corinthian owns more than 80 colleges across the U.S. through its Everest brands. According to the Associated Press, ITT Education Services, Inc. also expects to make $75 million in loans directly to its students this Calendar year, and Career Education Corp. expects to reach $50 million.

These are attempts to get around market corrections that have appropriately reduced access to subprime private loans for very high risk borrowers, and to justify prices for-profit education and training programs that may exceed federal aid limits. As mentioned above, Sallie Mae has stopped lending to these types of schools because of similarly high default rates and other questionable practices. But whether the source is their own school or an outside lender, the students who are sold private loans they cannot afford are stuck with them even in bankruptcy, while the lenders are free to move on.

Read Lauren Asher's oral testimony

Read Lauren Asher's written testimony

Read the coalition letter

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IBR

Help is here!

The Income-Based Repayment option for federally-backed student loans went into effect July 1. It can help borrowers keep their loan payments affordable with payment caps based on their income and family size. For most eligible borrowers, IBR loan payments will be less than 10 percent of their income - and even smaller for borrowers with low earnings. IBR will also forgive remaining debt, if any, after 25 years of qualifying payments.

To apply for Income-Based Repayment, contact your lender directly. If you have Direct Loans from the U.S. Department of Education, start here. If you do not know who is servicing your loan, check the National Student Loan Data System database.

For more information about income-based repayment and public service loan forgiveness, please visit IBRinfo.org.

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Information on IBR now comes in cartoon form! Check out our first-ever video, "Ditch Your Debt Gremlin," a two-minute animated introduction to IBR. Please share it on Facebook, email it to everyone you know, link to it from your blog, etc., to help get the word out about Income-Based Repayment before it becomes available on July 1.

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