Each year the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides its baseline projections for the federal student-loan program. This year it published them early with its annual “Budget and Economic Outlook.” The projections include the total amount of new federal student loans that the office believes will be disbursed, future interest rates, and subsidy costs, i.e. whether the government will make or lose money on the loans. This year, the CBO projects that the government will lend an additional $1.3 trillion to students between FY2017 and FY2027. The figure is up slightly since the 2016-2026 period, discussed here.
The CBO uses an accrual-accounting methodology to determine the present value of federal loans. This essentially means discounting the estimated cash flows of student loans against government securities. If student loans make more money than buying government debt would, then the loans are valuable. Accrual accounting does not include the market risk that a private lender would consider when offering a student loan, which is why many people advocate fair-value accounting. It’s a surprisingly contentious issue, which I elaborate on in the student debt data page, because under most fair-value accounting estimates the government loses money on student loans.
Under accrual accounting, the CBO projects negative subsidy rates for federal student loans; that is, it sees the government profiting from its lending. All student loans issued in FY2017 will earn an estimated 13.3 percent return, about the same as last year. Of interest to law-school watchers: Unsubsidized Stafford loans and Grad PLUS loans issued in FY2017 will make 18.6 percent and 20.8 percent returns, respectively. Oddly, Parent PLUS loans appear to be the most profitable for the government.
As with last year the CBO included fair-value estimates of federal student loans. By this measure, the government loses about 10 percent of its investment on student loans every year until FY2027. Unsubsidized Stafford loans and Grad PLUS loans lose about 4.5 percent in 2017, but the percentage increases over the decade. Parent PLUS loans remain profitable.
Note also that the CBO believes the net number of loans will rise during the decade. It’s already evident that federal student-loan borrowing is declining.
Under accrual accounting the student loans will net the government $112.6 billion; under fair-value accounting the government will lose $133.8 billion. This isn’t a lot of money for the government, actually, but it could obviously be redirected to better uses.
A crucial variable affecting subsidy rates is the CBO’s projection of future interest rates. Last year, the office believed interest rates for FY2016 would be about half a percent higher than they turned out to be. This year, the CBO estimates that interest rates will plateau at 3.5 percent starting in 2022.
Last year, I argued that the interest-rate estimates were more plausible than two years earlier. That was, however, before the election, and now the rate on 10-year government bonds is much higher than before. As a result, student debtors will probably pay higher rates starting in the next academic year, and the accrual method will produce higher future profits for the government that are probably illusory.