American college graduates are suffering financially under the weight of $1.5 trillion of student loan debt. The bulk of that debt stems from worrisome federal student loan practices and ballooning state tuition costs. Approximately 75 percent of college students attend a state university or college with tuition rates set by legislatures or state institutions. Over 85 percent of student loans are generated under the federal student loan program. In the past three decades, tuition at state colleges has increased by 313 percent.
Oddly, some seem to blame “capitalism” for the student loan predicament. Ray Dalio, billionaire investor, cited massive student debt loads in a recent article that made the case for reforming capitalism. Presidential Candidate John Hickenlooper penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal boldly proclaiming he is running for president to save capitalism. The very first point in his argument is that (public) high school education doesn’t provide adequate training for the modern economy. Anecdotally, we have heard the federal student loan predicament conflated with capitalism.
The Hardship Is Real
The pain of student debt is real. Sadly, there are many adults burdened by thousands of dollars in loan debt. Khalilah Beecham-Watkins, a first-generation college student and young mom, is one of many who feels as if they’re a prisoner to student loan debt. Khalilah has been working to pay down her $80,000 debt while helping her husband tackle his own loan obligations. In an interview last year, she said, “I feel like I’m drowning.”
As is well-reported, many young adults feel like Khalilah. In the United States, the average student loan debt is more than $37,000. As unsettling as that figure is, some graduates face even higher debt loads. About five percent of degree earners have student loan debt totaling $100,000 or more. Stories like Khalilah’s need to be told so that students don’t flippantly take on crushing debt without recognizing the gravity of such a decision.
This significant debt load is exacerbated by the fact that many graduates are finding it difficult to find well-paying jobs, which has spiraled into incredibly high rates of loan delinquency: More than one out of every 10 loan recipients is unable to keep up with payments. The Brookings Institute estimates that nearly 40 percent of borrowers will default by 2023. These are sobering statistics, and it’s important that borrowers be fully aware of the risks and benefits associated with debt of all kinds, including student loans.
The Benefits of Investing in a College Degree
Despite the burden that comes with debt, there are undeniable long-term benefits to earning a degree. In our skills-based economy, it is no surprise that a person with a bachelor’s degree will earn significantly more than a person with only a high school diploma. It has been estimated that a bachelor’s degree increases a person’s average lifetime earnings by $2.8 million.
And the more degrees someone holds, the more their earning potential increases. Studies indicate that earning a graduate degree could triple a person’s expected income. But in the near-term, the financial stress of loan delinquency, deferred consumption, and lower net worth is real.
While the buck ultimately stops with each of us when it comes to our own financial decisions, the student loan quagmire is chiefly the product of federal policy. Federal laws prohibiting sound commercial lending practices and states setting tuition rates high enough to guarantee they’re able to absorb all the federal money they can are complicit in this widespread problem.
Bad Diagnoses Lead to Bad Prescriptions
Rather than addressing the underlying problems of federal financial aid and rising public college tuition, politicians like Senators Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders are offering politically expedient ideas. Sen. Warren proposes debt cancellation of up to $50,000 to more than 42 million people.
Sen. Warren’s plan would eliminate debt for 75% of borrowers with student loans, and federal funding to ensure students attend state college for free. But nothing in life is free. Warren’s sleight-of-hand doesn’t make existing debt or future tuition magically disappear. Rather those costs are passed on to taxpayers. And since college graduates earn roughly twice as much as high school graduates and can expect to be in higher tax brackets, guess who would be paying the taxes for Sen. Warren’s plan.
Why Federal Loans Are Not Like Commercial Loans
To understand the federal student loan mess, it is necessary to understand some details about the loans that are at the center of the issue. The federal government provides a few types of loans, but the largest share of student debt comes from subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans.
In the case of a subsidized loan, the Department of Education pays the interest on the loan while the student is in school and for six months thereafter. A student can qualify for this type of loan whether or not they are creditworthy or have the ability to repay the loan.
In typical commercial lending, a bank would not offer a loan to an individual who didn’t hold a reasonable promise of being able and willing to repay it. This harkens back to 2008 when the US housing market collapsed because of irresponsible lending practices and the belief that everyone—no matter their financial situation—should own a home. It should be no surprise, then, that some economists predict a similar implosion of the student loan market. In other contexts, this would be called predatory lending.
The State’s Role in Tuition Inflation
The second contributor to these financial aid troubles is ballooning state college tuition rates. State legislatures and state institutions set public college rates, so these state officials should be held accountable to provide lower-cost alternatives. One lower-cost alternative to traditional on-campus programs would be to offer a basic skills-based college curriculum online at-cost, i.e., based on the marginal cost of providing downloadable lecture videos and similar programming.
While the total cost to a student of an online degree currently tends to be less than a traditional degree, the tuition is often the same. By offering video of select classes, schools could unlock the value of their existing educational resources and expand access to more students. However, state schools are largely immune from market discipline, which encourages cost-cutting and leveraging economies of scale. Instead of reducing operating costs and tuition prices, state schools soak up the flow of federal loan dollars.
On the finance side, state universities could offer their own alternative to federal student loans. Take, for instance, the market-oriented model of Purdue University and offer income sharing agreements (ISAs). Income sharing agreements allow consumers to pay off a debt by sharing a portion of the student’s income with the lender for a set number of years. Instead of a loan, ISAs allow investors to take “equity” in a student’s future earnings for a period of time.
The problem with the financial aid predicament is that market discipline has been eliminated from state college education and federal financial aid. Public colleges aren’t going to be privatized and run like for-profit businesses any time soon. However, by applying market-based innovations and lessons from the private sector to state colleges, it may be possible to expand access to state college, offer alternative financing arrangements (like income sharing agreements), and reduce the cost of college through technology and economies of scale.
Doug McCullough is Director of Lone Star Policy Institute. Brooke Medina is communications director at Civitas Institute in NC. Their opinions are their own. This article originally appeared on fee.org. Reptrinted in full, with permission.
It might be a while before post-secondary education is free for any American accepted to a public college or university. New York has become the first state to offer residents a tuition-free, post-secondary education at community colleges and public colleges and universities, and California could be next. That doesn’t help those of us who have already graduated from college with massive student loan debt, but you can get out of student loan debt without paying it all or worrying about interest accruing. The earlier you take these steps the better.
There are a ton of corporate scammers out there preying on recent college graduates struggling to repay their student loan debt. These companies offer nothing you can’t do yourself from the StudentLoans.gov website but charge a monthly fee for playing middle man between you and your student loan servicer(s).
You should be able to identify these scammers by their too-good-to-be-true offer, but if you ever call any other number besides (800) 557-7394 or (800) 557-7392, you’re likely dealing with a scammer. Keep in mind, though, that these companies already get a bad rep, so if you do end up being scammed, do not hesitate to demand a full refund.
This might sound impossible for an unemployed, college graduate, but it’s essential to improve your borrowing power during the six-month grace period you have before your first student loan payments are due.
What you can borrow depends on your debt-to-income ratio, which is probably pretty terrible for any recent college graduate looking for a job. But even if your income is low (or nonexistent), you can take steps to improve your financial situation by simply moving your debt around. The first step is prioritizing your non-student-loan debt.
Credit cards can be an asset if you use them correctly. If you’re struggling to find a job to improve your debt-to-income ratio by increasing your income, you must improve your debt-to-income ratio by reducing your debt. But how can you reduce your debt without income?
You should know which credit cards are costing you the most in interest. Some of these rates can be upwards of 30 percent, so check to see if there’s an opportunity to transfer your highest credit card balance to a credit card with a lower rate. You might pay a three percent fee on the balance transferred, but if that’s less than you’d pay in interest over the life of the introductory rate, better to pay that amount upfront during your six-month grace period.
The key is to never allow your credit card balance to grow. At the end of every month, your credit card balance should be less than it was when you graduated. That way, when the six-month grace period on your student loans expires, you can work with smaller (or nonexistent) credit card payments.
If you are tired of paying multiple student loan servicers, consolidate your loans under one servicer. This will make your student loan payments one payment paid to one servicer. The important thing to keep in mind when consolidating, though, is when asked the question of whether you work for a nonprofit, answer “yes,” even if you don’t. This will assure that your loans are consolidated with a servicer who qualifies for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF). So if you end up working for a nonprofit in the future, your loans already qualify for the program.
You can only pay what you have, so anyone with student loan debt should be on an income-based repayment plan, unless, of course, you make a ton of money. If that’s the case you should just pay off your student loans as quickly as possible to avoid paying interest.
While you must reapply for an income-based repayment plan annually, regardless of your change in adjusted gross income, it will result in the lowest qualifying payment you can make on your student loans.
If your income is low enough, you could end up paying $0 per month, but unless you intend to work for a nonprofit for 10 years and have the remaining balance of your student loans forgiven, interest will accrue at an astronomical rate.
Under the PSLF program, if you make 120 payments -- even of $0 -- while working at least 30 hours per week for a nonprofit organization, the remaining balance of your student loans after those 120 payments will be forgiven. It will disappear.
You don’t necessarily have to be paid by the nonprofit. If you volunteer for 30 hours per week with a nonprofit or multiple nonprofits, you just need an executive of that nonprofit to verify that you work 30 hours per week for them using this form.
You can even start a nonprofit and have a member of your board verify your work hours. I just found out all the work I did for a nonprofit I started to grow ice sports in my hometown qualifies me for the PSLF program, so if there’s a cause near and dear to your heart that isn’t being addressed by a nonprofit, start one. It’s as easy as raising some money and filing some corporate paperwork with the state to acquire tax exempt status. (Note: partisan political nonprofits and labor unions do not qualify.)
Don’t let student loan debt cripple your economic outlook. Take these steps as soon as possible to get out of student loan debt.
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