Escaping the Student Debt Trap


Student debt in the U.S. now tops $1.2 trillion with 37 million borrows, 5.4 million of whom have already defaulted.  President Obama has proposed to expand a program which allows students to repay debt based on what they earn, eventually forgiving the balance.  Massachusetts Senator Warren has proposed taxing millionaires to pay for student loan refinancing.  Small scale free market proposals abound.  What is badly needed is a sensible broad-based public program approved by Congress.
CaptureThe Brookings Institution has recently proposed just such a model for student loan repayment “Loans for Educational Opportunity: Making Borrowing Work for Today’s Students”.  It is based on four observations:

  • Moderate debt for the typical student borrower. 69% of students have borrowed $10,000 or less.
  • The high payoff of a college education. Over a lifetime the holder of a bachelor’s degree earns several hundred thousand dollars more than a high school graduate. Even those who attend college but do not graduate will experience an income gain of about $100,000.  Postsecondary education should be encouraged as widely as possible.
  • The highest rates of default are on typical loan balances. The average loan balance in default is $14,000 while the average loan balance in good standing is $22,000.
  • The highest rates of default are among young borrowers. For borrowers under age 21, 28% have defaulted, for borrowers between ages 30 and 44, 18% have defaulted and it is 12% for borrowers aged 45 and older.

The Brookings’ authors propose that student loan payments be deducted from pay by the employer, in the same way as for income taxes and Social Security.  The payment rate would be only 3% of the first $10,000 in annual earnings and would rise with higher earnings topping out at 10%.  Loan payments will stop when the loan is repaid or after 25 years, whichever comes first.  Various measures can be adopted to protect against deadbeats.  See the Brookings report for details.
The fairest system would be for all students, past and present, to be put into a program like this.  Nobody would be expected to pay during periods of unemployment. Interest rates could be adjusted from year to year to make the program self-supporting. Something along these lines is badly needed!

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