Today’s big news is that the Obama administration — thanks to those crisis-ignorin’ creeps in Congress — is going off on its own to reduce purportedly devastating student loan burdens. Well, that’s the message. The reality is that the proposals just tinker around the edges, meaning debtors are getting little relief while the notion that it’s okay to stick taxpayers with other people’s obligations is advanced.
What would the administration’s proposals do? There are several little wrinkles, but basically this: New, income-based repayment rules will be hurried a bit so that borrowers’ payments are capped at 10 percent of discretionary income (likely meaning income above 150 percent of the poverty line) rather than 15 percent, and remaining debt would be forgiven after 20 years rather than 25. In addition, borrowers with loans from both the now-defunct guaranteed loan program – loans through banks that are almost completely backed with federal money — and loans that come directly from Uncle Sam can consolidate those loans and get an interest rate reduction. In point of fact they could do the same thing before, only the administration is offering a .25 point interest reduction in addition to the .25 points that were previously offered.
Here, though, is the really miraculous part: According to the U.S. Department of Education, “these changes carry no additional cost to taxpayers.” Don’t ask how that can be – they don’t say – just rest assured!
For what it’s worth, these changes probably won’t cost taxpayers a whole lot, at least in Washington spending terms. Many borrowers don’t have both guaranteed and direct loans, and a normal federal loan has a ten-year term, meaning most borrowers probably aren’t still paying back twenty years down the line. Finally, while college prices are without question out of control, the average debt for a student graduating with any debt is still only around $27,000. That’s a heck of a lot closer to a car loan than a mortgage.
That said, the idea that any of this won’t cost taxpayers is bunk. They ultimately back all federal student loans, so unless Washington intends to send in the 82nd Airborne to force lenders with remaining guaranteed loans to write them off — which maybe I shouldn’t put past the feds – lenders will get paid. And any direct loans that get less money returned are immediate taxpayer losses. And yes, direct loans probably do make money for the federal government, but those receipts were pledged to Obamacare and deficit reduction when the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act was rolled into the health care bill to make the CBO numbers come out right. Change the revenue, and it means you’ve saddled taxpayers with more health care costs, or less supposed deficit reduction, than had been promised with Obamacare. And don’t even get me started on how any reduction or forgiveness of debt encourages students to borrow more and pay even higher tuition prices.
In light of all this, it looks like everyone is being sold a bill of goods by the administration: borrowers won’t get much relief, and taxpayers will indeed get saddled with additional costs.
(See this Cato essay for more on higher education subsidies.)