The Politics of Student Debt
There are two distinct lanes in the Democratic party. The progressive lane gravitates towards big ideas, which if implemented would transform society and the economy. The centrist land proposes modest changes to existing programs, which often would not substantially change the status quo. Most of the focus of the political discussion centers on the big proposals offered by participants in the progressive lane often leading to their rejection. Proposals offered in the centrist lane receive much less scrutiny. Problems and limitations of centrist proposals are often ignored.
The debate among candidates on student debt closely follows this pattern. The progressive lane advocates for free college and for immediate and substantial debt forgiveness for all or almost all people currently with student debt. The centrist lane advocates additional assistance for community college, and expansion of existing programs including Pell grants, Income Driven Loans, and Public Service Loans. The discussion centers on the economic and political feasibility of proposals offered by the progressive lane and does not consider the adequacy or potential problems with solutions offered by centrists.
An objective analysis of the progressive agenda suggests that its enactment requires a complete transformation of the U.S. economic, political, education, and tax systems. The consensus from this discussion is that a solution that works in a high-tax high-regulation European economy cannot be easily or quickly transferred to the United States. Moreover, many people argue that large subsidies for student borrowers are unfair to workers and taxpayers who do not attend school and are unfair to previous cohorts of student borrowers who paid off their student debt.
Centrist plans for making college more affordable and alleviating student debt burdens get far less scrutiny than progressive plans. In recent decades, there has been a substantial increase in the number of student borrowers, average student debt and the number of people entering retirement years with outstanding student loans. Centrist proposals, while more generous than policies espoused by the Trump Administration, are unlikely to reverse these trends.
A major education policy goal for many politicians in the centrist lane is on assuring an adequate supply of workers in hard to fill positions. Klobuchar in her New York Times interview on education spoke about the lack of shortage for MBAs or CEOs and the need to fill positions for home health care workers. The financial incentives in her proposals and the proposals offered by other centrists would steer many students away from academic four-year colleges towards two-year schools emphasizing practical career choices. The argument that people with substantial talent need to gravitate towards practical career choices early in their life because of economic reality is not highly inspirational or consistent with the view that education can lead to upward mobility.
The emphasis on education for practical positions leads centrists to support substantial increases in funds for community colleges. A policy that decreases the relative price of community college to four-year college could lead to fewer students from low-income households at four-year colleges. This approach could create a two-track academic structure where students from low-income households are slotted towards community college and students from households with more financial resources are slotted towards more prestigious four-year institutions. The student from the low-income and mid-income household may have enough talent to become a CEO or an MBA or a doctor. It is not clear whether the increased emphasis on community colleges will keep these doors open.
The centrist plan also includes increases in the budget for Pell grants. Pell grants target relatively low-income households and would have a relatively small impact on student debt for the typical student borrower. It would be extremely difficult and expensive to expand the Pell grant program to reduce debt burdens on students from middle-income households. Funds for Pell grants are part of the annual budget and subject to the whims of Congress.
Two additional ways to assist students from low-income households deserve consideration.
The first method involves free tuition or substantially reduced costs for the first year of four-year colleges. A free first year of college would decrease student debt for all student borrowers. Benefits would be especially large for students who fail to ever complete their degrees or students who take a long period of time to graduate, two populations that often experience repayment problems.
A free first year of college would allow for private grant funds to be allocated across a smaller population. (First year students would theoretically not need private grants if the first year was free.) An increase in grant funds per student after the first year of college would further reduce student debt burdens.
The second method involves the creation of additional two-year degrees at major four-year institutions. This approach allows more students access to major universities. The availability of more two-year degrees at four-year colleges could reduce the number of people who leave school without a degree. There may also be some students ready for graduate school after two years of undergraduate work.
The debate over debt relief options also centers on extremely ambitious proposals offered by candidates in the progressive lane. Less attention is focused on options favored by candidates in the centrist lane including the expansion of income driven loan programs and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
A proposal offered by Senator Warren would discharge $50,000 of student debt for people with income less than $100,000 and a reduced amount of debt relief for borrowers with income above that threshold. Senator Sanders has offered universal discharge of student debt for student borrowers.
These broad debt relief programs are not economically efficient because they divert scarce resources away from more pressing problems. Many of the student borrowers who would receive assistance under these proposals are able to repay their loans without government assistance. The proposals are also unfair to workers who don’t benefit from higher education and to previous students who repaid their loans.
The candidates in the centrist lane favor expanding Income Driven Loan programs and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs. There are major problems with loan programs that link student loan payments to income and programs that offer debt relief for public service. However, problems with these programs and potential improvements are barely addressed because all of the attention is focused on the more ambitious progressive proposals.
Income Driven Loan programs link loan payments to annual income and allow for the possibility of loan discharges after a number of years. There are many problems with this approach. Student borrowers must choose to enter an Income Driven Loan program or remain in a conventional loans program when leaving school. Whether a student borrower is better off under an Income Driven Loan program or a conventional loan program depends on income and marital status over the lifetime of the loan and is often impossible to predict when students make their loan selection.
Moreover, student borrowers must reenroll annually in income driven loan programs. Errors by loan services could result in the denial of loan discharge applications for some student borrowers. The loan discharge is contingent on student borrowers making 240 on-time loan payments. Income driven loan programs may fail to provide debt relief to student borrowers who fail to make payments because of financial hardship. This is the group most in need of assistance.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program does not have a great track record. The program makes loan discharges contingent on an applicant staying in a public service position for 10 years. Some applicants lose debt relief when they switch careers. Over 99 percent of people in the first cohort of applicants to apply for a loan discharge under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program had their discharge applications denied, even though the applicant had made loan payments for 10 years. There are several reasons for the large rejection rate on loan discharge applications. Some applicants were informed that they were employed at firms in positions, which were not eligible for the public service loan program. Some applicants were informed after 10 years or payments they had chosen a payment plan that was not consistent with the public service loan forgiveness program. Problems involved with administering the public service loan program are documented in this report written by the Consumer Finance Protection Board.
There are superior alternatives to Income Driven Loan programs and Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs that are not even currently being considered.
A provision in a loan contract eliminating interest charges near the end of the loan term would be simpler to administer and fairer to both borrowers and the taxpayer than a program offering loan discharges after 20 year of payments. A loan discharge provision creates an incentive for some students to increase the amount they borrow and discourage quick repayment of student debt. Students with a loan that allows interest rate reductions near the end of the loan term will always repay more if they borrow more and are not discouraged from entering a short- term payment plan.
The elimination of interest near the end of the loan term also offers some debt relief to student borrowers who miss payments and are ineligible for a loan discharge.
The Trump Administration and Congress propose to eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program because of its cost to taxpayers. In order to obtain debt relief from a public service loan program, applicants must stay in a public service career for 10 years. Some applicants may choose to eschew more productive positions to obtain a debt discharge.
A narrower Public Service Loan Forgiveness program that provided less debt relief for a short period of time when student borrower begin repayment could increase loan repayments when people are starting their careers and salaries are relatively low. This program would be easier to administer and less expensive than the current Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. More importantly, the revised shorter-term benefit would not create job lock.
The discussion and the energy in the Democratic party revolves around support for or opposition to big ideas. The potential and problems associated with modest proposals are not fully evaluated. Not surprisingly, this debate is not leading to the formation of practical policies that would actually reduce student debt burdens. We need a third lane offering pragmatic progressive policies, which could lead to real change.