Student Debt Proposal #4: Creation of incentives for more rapid student loan repayment

Financial incentives favoring contributions to 401(k) plan over rapid repayment of student loans make many households worse off financially. Programs and incentives encouraging the rapid repayment of student debt would lower future borrowing costs, facilitate the purchase of homes, and allow many households to increase saving for retirement.

Introduction:   Tax and financial incentives are more generous for contributions to 401(k) plans than for the repayment of student debt.

  • Workers are allowed to to save untaxed dollars in a firm-sponsored retirement plan or an individual retirement account.
  • Firms can match employee contributions to the 401(k) plan. Two common 401(k) matching formulas are 50 percent of the dollar amount contributed by the employee up to 6.0 percent of the employee’s salary and 100 percent of contributions up to 3 percent of the employee’s salary. 

The subsidies for 401(k) contributions are substantially higher than the subsidies for student debt repayments.

  • Student borrowers can deduct up to $2,500 of interest on student loans.  
  • The student loan tax deduction pertains exclusively to interest while the entire 401(k) or IRA contribution is exempt from taxes.
  • There is no matching contribution for student loan repayment.

The decision to prioritize 401(k) contributions over student debt repayment does not always work out well as discussed in a previous post.  Potential consequences include:

  • Higher total loan payments associated with selection of longer loan maturities.
  • Higher borrowing costs stemming from higher debt levels and lower credit ratings.
  • Early disbursements of 401(k) funds leading to penalty and tax payments.
  • Increased likelihood of having debt obligations in retirement.

Student borrowers who quickly repay their loans would increase saving for retirement, realize lower borrowing costs, start the process of paying off their mortgage and would basically be much better off.  

There is general agreement that student debt significantly impedes saving for retirement by young households.  There is, however, no real consensus on how to fix this problem.

A Congressional Proposal:

Wall Street favors and greatly benefits from incentives for 401(k) investing.   Current proposals to assist student borrowers favored by Wall Street and financial advisors maintain incentives for 401(k) contributions over rapid repayment of student loans.

The Secure Act 2.0 would expand incentives for 401(k) contributions.  One provision would allow student borrowers who are enrolled in a firm-sponsored retirement plan to receive a matching 401(k) contribution for funds used to pay off their student loan.  

It is not clear an act of Congress is needed to implement this proposal because of a previous IRS ruling.

The proposal should allow the employer to contribute an employer match to the employee’s 401(k) plan up to the smaller of the student loan payment and the maximum allowable match on the 401(k) plan.   The student borrower repaying her loan would receive the employer match even if the student borrower did not contribute to the 401(k) plan.

The proposal only benefits student borrowers at firms with 401(k) plans, workers at firms with plans offering matching contributions, and workers eligible for the 401(k) plan.

Many student borrowers will not benefit from this provision in Secure Act 2.0 including:

  • People at firms with 401(k) plans that do not match employer contributions. Around 49 percent of all firms do not offer an employer match.
  • Employees who are ineligible for the firms-sponsored 401(k) plan.  Around 24 percent of firms require one year of service for entry to the firm-sponsored 401(k) plan.

This proposal and other aspects of Secure Act 2.0 favor higher-cost 401(k) plans over low-cost IRAS.  People who rely on high-cost 401(k) plans end up paying a substantial portion of their savings to Wall Street. Go herefor a discussion of the impact of 401(k) fees on retirement.

Moreover, the use of traditional 401(k) plans instead of Roth IRAs substantially increases tax burdens in retirement. A strong case can be made that workers should maximize the use of Roth IRAs instead of contributing to traditional plans.  

A more equitable and efficient approach might provide additional retirement subsidies for people without access to 401(k) plans or might provide additional incentives for the more rapid reduction of student loans.

An Alternative Proposal

The current system, which incentivizes saving for retirement over rapid repayment of student loans, does not work for many households.  This is evidenced by a CNBC article that found that nearly 60 percent of young adults have taken funds out of their 401(k) plan.

The alternative proposal presented here incentivizes the more rapid repayment of student loans over saving for retirement.  Under the alternative approach, the government would discharge 25 percent of the original balance of the federal student loan after the student borrower made 36 full-time payments on a 10-year loan and 60 full-time payments on a 20-year loan.

The alternative approach levels the incentives for rapid repayment of student debt and saving for retirement. Students who delay making full payments on their student loan would also delay receipt of the partial discharge on the student loan.  

The more rapid repayment of student loans and the partial discharge of the student loan frees up monthly payments and allows student borrowers to increase savings for other objectives including saving for retirement and a home purchase.

The alternative proposal would benefit all student borrowers including borrowers working at firms that do not have a 401(k) plan, borrowers with at firms with 401(K) plans that do not have employer matches and workers ineligible for their firm-sponsored retirement plan.

The alternative proposal does not favor high-fee 401(k) plans over low-fee IRAs.

The alternative plan does not encourage workers to stay at a job where they might be unproductive and unhappy to claim matching funds.

The partial discharge on student debt reduces demand for Income Based Replacement IBR loans and Public Service Forgiveness Loans (PSFL), both costly programs for taxpayers.

Concluding Remarks:  Wall Street and financial advisors consistently advise their clients to prioritize 401(k) contributions over rapid repayment of student debt.  This approach is not leading to a secure financial life for many student borrowers who are paying more on student debt over their lifetime, incurring high borrowing costs on other loans, having trouble qualifying for a mortgage and raiding their 401(k) plan prior to retirement.   A quick partial discharge of student debt would allow highly leveraged students to increase saving for retirement.

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