Grad PLUS Loan Disaster Sidelined by Stafford Interest Rate Hikes

If you didn’t know already, the Higher Education Act is up for renewal this year, but you have to dig deeper to get news about anything other than the Stafford loan interest rate hike that will destroy the lives of the undergrads or something. For those curious about law school tuition, here’s what’s been going on.

For one, you have the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation dropping $3.3 million in grants on 14 organizations to produce policy papers aiming to improve college completion rates by changing the federal loan program. (How about, “Don’t send people to college who are unprepared or can be expected to fail, and create living wage jobs for young people instead”? Now can I get my slice of that $3.3 million?) I don’t know about Melinda’s education (and I don’t care), but I think it’s pretty funny that a wildly successful college dropout is trying to increase completion rates. Those Redmond engineers have to learn coding somewhere.

The policy paper that probably carries the most weight is the New America Foundation’s “Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Student Aid,” which tackles the graduate-level debt disaster with several proposals:

(1)  Terminate the Grad PLUS loan program.

(2)  Restore bankruptcy protections to private student loans.

(3)  Raise graduate and professional students’ annual Stafford Loan limit to $25,500.

(4)  Set all federal loans’ interest rates to the 10-year Treasury rate plus 3.0 percent.

(5)  Encourage debtors with guaranteed loans to switch them to direct loans with a one percent interest rate reduction.

(6)  Make Income-Based Repayment the sole repayment plan, revise it to protect against high debt, high-income debtors making a windfall.

If these six policies were enacted, it’s certain that average private law school tuition would drop, and it’s clear that the New America Foundation now realizes that IBR isn’t so much the problem as Grad PLUS loans. Recall that the foundation expended much effort last year arguing that an undetermined number of high debt, high income graduate and professional students would benefit most from the changes to IBR (an already generous program compared to the debtors with cosigned private loans that have to come up with four-figure monthly payments or else a megabank will foreclose on their parents’ houses) by showcasing a fly-by-night accounting firm’s advertizing that targeted graduates from a law school with awful employment outcomes.

As you can imagine, I still don’t understand the New America Foundation. Not its policy proposals, those are very crisp and largely unobjectionable, but it doesn’t seem to have much of an ideology, i.e. a coherent set of beliefs that explain why the social order should be one way and not another. “Let’s tweak these programs really well” is not an ideology beyond modifying the edges of an existing social order, which is what you’d expect from a paper using “rebalancing resources and incentives” in its title. This surprises me as its co-founder, Michael Lind, regularly writes reliably lucid liberal (anti-neoliberal!) articles for Salon, including not one but two contemplating taxing land values as a response to advancing technology.

Thus, I draw your attention to point (3), raising the annual loan limit to $25,500. It’s utterly inconsistent with the foundation’s goal of reducing graduate-level tuition:

[Unlimited Grad PLUS loans], especially when coupled with loan forgiveness and Income-Based Repayment, can discourage prudent pricing on the part of institutions and prudent borrowing by students.

“Prudent pricing” here is thinktankspeak for a tuition bubble. As for “prudent borrowing,” I don’t know about other programs, but in the law students’ defense there’s been no evidence that Grad PLUS loans plus IBR has led to an increase in law school applicants who are cynically trying to screw over the government.

Applicants, Admitted Applicants, 1Ls (2013)

(Source: LSAC)

That’s not to say that law schools and students don’t depend on Grad PLUS loans, but I think it’s more one-sided than the New America Foundation indicates. There are fewer law students but not fewer law schools. (Yet.)

We continue:

However, policymakers should increase the annual limit on Unsubsidized Stafford loans for graduate students from the current $20,500 to $25,500 to replace some of the borrowing ability graduate students will lose when the Grad PLUS loan program is eliminated. Although [eliminating the Grad PLUS loan program] will likely push some graduate students into the private loan market, this could ultimately be beneficial in addressing the high costs of graduate schools. If institutions can no longer rely on PLUS loans to fund their high-tuition programs and if the private market is responsive to the ability of borrowers to repay (based on changes to bankruptcy law recommended later), then graduate schools may have to set their pricing based, in part, on students’ expected earnings.

If uncapped Grad PLUS loans discourage prudent pricing, why would raising the cap on Stafford loans encourage it? If the private sector is more responsive to borrowers’ ability to pay, which still doesn’t mean they’re more productive thanks to their educations, then why replace the lost borrowing ability with non-underwritten loans? I don’t really expect the New America Foundations of the D.C. think-tank circuit to argue for doing away with the Stafford Loan Program entirely—there’d be less to tweak!—but without a theory of what causes tuition increases and how people can wind up taking on more debt than they can afford to pay, there’s an obvious contradiction.

The only reason I can think of for the $5,000 Stafford loan increase is to ensure that the proposal looks like it’s saving money. Otherwise, it’d much more consistent to leave the Staffords as they are because eventually the $25,500 loan limit will be eaten by inflation anyway, and the paper doesn’t discuss pegging any of the loan limits to inflation. The other problem with Stafford loans is that universities can increase their haul by setting their tuition at the loan limit and enrolling more students.

********************

Since the New America Foundation’s proposal is probably the most comprehensive one out there (I didn’t read the others, but I can live with it), then how is it faring against Congress’s dysfunctions?

Enter The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Kelly Field, “House Panel Approves Market Approach to Student Loan Interest Rates,” May 17, 2013.

Here’s the outline:

  • Obama proposes setting the interest rates on various student loans as follows:
    • Subsidized Staffords: 10-year Treasury note + 0.93 percent, with no cap
    • Unsubsidized Staffords: 10-year Treasury note + 2.0 percent, with no cap
    • Grad PLUS and Parent PLUS: 10-year Treasury note + 3.0 percent, with no cap
  • The Senate is working on the “Student Loan Affordability Act,” which would hold the Stafford loan interest rate at 3.4 percent for two more years.
  • The House will vote on a bill that sets interest rates as follows:
    • Subsidized & Unsubsidized Staffords: 10-year Treasury note + 2.5 percent variable rate, capped at 8.5 percent
    • Grad PLUS and Parent PLUS: 10-year Treasury note + 4.5 percent variable rate, capped at 10.5 percent
  • The alternative Senate bill would set interest rates for all student loans at the “bond equivalent” of the 91-day Treasury note, capped at 8.25 percent. I have no idea what “bond equivalent” means in this context, probably taking the 91-day rate to the 40th power or something like that to align it with a 10-year rate.

In short, expect more Grad PLUS loan carnage and more tuition hikes where they can be had.

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2 Responses

  1. Eliminating Gradplus and replacing it with slightly raised Stafford loans would probably have a profound effect on law schools. Most law schools seem to have raised their tuition+other costs well over $25k. If students can only borrow $25k p/a from the government, then those schools are going to be in a lot of trouble. And its unlikely that they could attract sufficient new applicants to make up the shortfall.

    Of course it would all depend on what other sources of loans students could access – whether they would be truly private (which would hard to access and would put most law schools in a bad situation) or government backed (which would easier to access and probably just result in the same situation as now).

  2. […] innocently confused on the theoretical debate (such as it is in Washington). Recall that the NAF advocated eliminating Grad PLUS loans while increasing the unsubsidized Stafford loan limit to restore […]

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