5 Ways We Can Save Students From Drowning in Debt

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By Mitchell D. Weiss

The U.S. Department of Education recently unveiled an improved methodology for calculating student-loan payment delinquencies. Where it once figured the late-payment rate of student loans as a whole to be 17 percent, the department has now determined that when the same data is expressed in terms of individual borrowers, it's as high as 38 percent.

However, the new calculations don't even take into account the borrowers in default or have had their payment plans modified by loan servicers so that their accounts no longer appear to be past due –- even though many technically are. Taking all that into consideration, the number of distressed borrowers approaches 50 percent.

There are two problems with the department's latest effort to convince a skeptical world that it really does know how to manage the more than $1 trillion of directly originated and government-guaranteed student loans on its books.

Get Some Real Numbers and Tackle Them Quickly

The first problem is, frighteningly, the department has demonstrated that it really doesn't know what it is doing -- not with all its restated metrics and loan-administration mishaps. The second is that even this latest parsing of payment-performance data has yet to inspire anything more than a frustratingly incremental approach to solving what is clearly a rapidly deteriorating situation.

Starting with the manner in which performance is evaluated, there are three categories of loans: those not in default, those that are and those that are someplace in between because the contracts have been temporarily restructured (granted forbearance) or permanently modified (via the government's Income-Based Repayment and Pay As You Earn plans).

True, the above three categories combine to make up the aggregate value of student loans currently in repayment, but each of these types must be separately tracked and analyzed, for two reasons: first, so that migrations between delinquency statuses (30-, 60-, 90-days past due, for example) can be monitored and corrective actions (with regard to servicing) taken; second, so that the activities of the loan servicers can be more closely scrutinized than they currently are.

What's Offered Does Not Go Far Enough

These private-sector companies are compensated for managing payment performances to within predetermined standards. So it's reasonable to be concerned about the temptation to improve upon the results, such as by temporarily accommodating delinquent borrowers so their loans no longer appear as past due.

These dreadful metrics should inspire lenders and servicers to find a comprehensive solution, but don't. The plain truth is that the plans to help student loan borrowers -- those currently in place (income-based repayment programs) and proposed (such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren's reintroduction of the Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act) -- don't do enough.

Here's why: Pay As You Earn and Income-Based Repayment are helpful but cumbersome. Not only must borrowers re-qualify for the relief they need every year, but as their incomes grow, so will the value of their monthly payments. That makes it harder for households already under pressure to set budgets, let alone plan for the future.

What Can Be Done?

A loan portfolio in which roughly half the borrowers are either in trouble or treading water is one that is in obvious need of restructuring. So let's stop wasting time pointing fingers about how these loans were first approved or structured, or why borrowers are still struggling as the economy improves, and solve the problem. Here's how.
  1. Restructure every loan-without regard for origination channel and payment status-for terms of up to 20 years. Longer repayment durations will do more for affordability than monkeying around with interest rates, although these, too, should be reconfigured because the consumer-unfriendly rate-setting mechanism that Congress put into place in 2013 has more to do with politics than it does finance.
  2. Permit partial and full prepayments-without penalty. Just because a loan has a lengthy duration shouldn't mean that it can't be settled ahead of time. Penalty-free prepayments-where the additionally remitted amounts are appropriately applied against the principal-will help borrowers to limit the amount of interest they pay overall.
  3. Expunge previous credit histories for loans that are subsequently refinanced. The standard 10-year repayment plan that was originally put into place is to a large extent responsible for the problems many borrowers have had. Creditors should therefore be more concerned about repayment performance after the contracts have been restructured.
  4. Offer student-loan borrowers the same tax relief that has benefitted homeowners. Waive taxation on the value of the debt forgiveness that may be granted on an exception basis, just as it has been for distressed home mortgages that were permanently modified after the crash.
  5. Permit student loan debts to be discharged in bankruptcy. This will motivate recalcitrant owners and servicers of government-guaranteed loans to come to the bargaining table with tangible, sustainable solutions.
The money exists to pay for all this.

The U.S. Department of Education rakes in enormous profits from its student loan programs. Much of that is a result of the risky manner in which the government has chosen to finance this activity (low-rate, short-term borrowing is used to support its high-rate, long-term lending at a time when the Federal Reserve is contemplating raising rates). But even if the department were to "match fund" its portfolio as lenders often do, it would still earn substantial profits from the combination of fees and interest that are charged.

What's not so well-known is how these profits end up appropriated by Congress to offset the national debt. Said differently, lawmakers are, in effect, taxing the very same constituents it should be helping.

This op/ed contribution to Credit.com doesn't necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.
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