Our broken student loan system

by Grace

The New York Times published another student loan article that featured the extreme case of a college graduate who owes the federal government $410,000 after unwisely borrowing to pay for degrees that only qualify her to be a high school teacher.  Maybe it was supposed to elicit sympathy from readers, but even the usually soft-hearted NYT readers made it clear in the comments that this woman is not much of a victim and only has herself to blame.

More of interest to me was the way the article explained the troublesome truths about our broken student loan program, which “has been removed from the norms and values of prudent lending”.

The private enterprise system is built to limit overborrowing by sharing risk between lenders and borrowers. Lenders examine credit and income histories and ask for collateral that can be repossessed in case of default. They charge more interest when they take on more risk. Because most loans can be discharged in bankruptcy, lenders share the cost of default. It’s likely that Ms. Kelley’s mortgage lender lost money on her 2008 foreclosure, for example.

But the federal student loan program doesn’t work that way. Those ads that run on bus stop signs and on late-night television — “No Cash? No Credit? No Problem!” — are essentially the Department of Education’s official policy on student loans.

On the front end, the department is the world’s nicest, most accommodating lender. Interest rates are set by Congress and are lower than banks charge in the private market. Borrowing for college is essentially an entitlement — as long as you’re enrolled in an accredited college and aren’t in arrears on a previous student loan, it doesn’t matter how much debt you have or how little money you make. Undergraduate loans are capped to contain borrowing and college costs, but graduate loans are bound only by the vague limits of “living expenses.”

Private lenders also don’t let people defer making payments for years or decades at a time.

A private sector lender approached by a potential borrower with no assets, a modest income and $350,000 in debt who had never made a payment on that loan in over 20 years would not, presumably, lend that person an additional $7,800. But that’s exactly what the Department of Education did for Ms. Kelley in 2011. Legally, it could do nothing else.

Our culture also encourages a great deal of trust in colleges. When people walk onto a used-car lot, they generally understand that promises of easy credit are just another tool for a slick salesman to close a deal. The local university and the Department of Education, by contrast, are assumed to have students’ best interests in mind.

Pro-student organizations support low interest rates, no credit checks and lengthy deferment options, as do colleges that can’t stay solvent without debt-financed tuition. Individually, these policies have merit, just as not repaying a student loan is often a perfectly rational choice in the short term, right up until the point when the short term becomes long. For some people, it hardly seems like debt at all.

When the loan bill finally comes due, the federal government transforms into a heartless loan collector. You don’t need burly men with brass knuckles to enforce debts when you have the Internal Revenue Service. It is both difficult and illegal to hide money from the federal government, which can and will follow you as long as you live.

The government acts this way because the federal student loan program has been removed from the norms and values of prudent lending. Because the Department of Education doesn’t consider risk, it takes no responsibility. If life, luck and bad choices leave you $410,000 in the hole, it’s all on you.

At the core of the problem is poor underwriting.  Not every warm body should receive a loan based solely on attendance at a college that may or may not have reasonable standards for admission.

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