Income Based Repayment

WSJ’s Editorial Page Blames Obama for Preventing Student Loan Defaults

I wrote that the WSJ’s reporting on student loans had improved slightly. Its editorial responding to the GAO report on the Department of Education’s cost estimate of income-driven repayment plans, on the other hand, backslides. It’s really more of a rant than an editorial, but here’s a digest of what I think it was arguing:

  • Cutting out banks as middle-men for federal student loans costs taxpayers money, even though it didn’t, and that change had nothing to do with IDR plans.
  • Democrats knew that student loans would never be repaid when it federalized student lending. Again, even if true, this claim has nothing to do with IDR plans, which were authorized by prior administrations.
  • IDR plans keep default rates “artificially low,” which while technically accurate doesn’t explain how debtors are supposed to pay loans they can’t repay. What would the WSJ propose if all these people default instead?
  • The Obama administration allowed borrowers to retroactively sign on to IDR plans, which is true but doesn’t explain how debtors would repay the loans otherwise since they probably would not be able to discharge them in bankruptcy.
  • IDR is an “entitlement” that can be “exploited,” even though there’s no evidence student debtors could repay their loans without it. Assuming the GAO’s report is correct, IDR plans are doing exactly what they are supposed to do. The problem is that too many people have too much debt.
  • The Obama administration is responsible for the shoddy accounting of student loans’ ultimate costs—which I’ll accept—but it doesn’t blame lending programs passed by the Bush II administration that created these unpayable debts to begin with. Seriously, the WSJ threw the 2000s down the memory hole.
  • The Obama administration used costly IDR plans to buy votes. No evidence is given, and didn’t younger voters bail on the Democrats in this election? Nice bribe, Obama.
  • Implicitly, the Republican-controlled Congress bears no responsibility for failing to create more jobs or raise incomes, even though it was more concerned with slashing the budget, shutting down the government, and threatening to default on the national debt despite trifling interest rates.

I feel bad for the reporter who carefully tried to explain the GAO’s report and was just upstaged by an incompetent, partisan editorial. (I hope it’s not the same author.)

There’s much blame to place at Obama’s feet regarding the value of college education and student loans. One of these days I’d like to summarize my coverage of him to gauge my fairness towards the outgoing administration. Hopefully, I’ve been consistently non-partisan in my analysis, but perhaps not. However, if the best the WSJ can do is blame Obama for preventing defaults on loans that could not be repaid given the Congresses he had to work with, I’m confident my final assessment will smell like roses by comparison.

WSJ’s Student Loan Coverage Improves: More Facts, Fewer ‘Deadbeats’

And not just facts, neutral facts, which is how reporting is supposed to be. I’ve criticized The Wall Street Journal‘s student loan coverage, but its most recent article on the topic, “U.S. to Forgive at Least $108 Billion in Student Debt in Coming Years,” is a start in the right direction.

Okay, the title could use some work. More accurately, it should be something like: “GAO Projects U.S. Will Forgive $108 Billion in Student Loans in Coming Years.” It’s 76 characters, which is too long for most SEO-obsessed editors, but it doesn’t characterize a possibility as a certainty.

Conversely, the WSJ neglects to cite another GAO study on the subject of student debtors’ earnings. Its data are nearly two years old, but they show that 72 percent of people on income-sensitive repayment plans were earning $20,000 annually or less. Not even 10 percent of IBR and PAYE participants (157,000) made more than $40,000 per year.

Thus, the WSJ’s reasoning still follows a shaky line of reasoning:

(1) IBR participants’ debts are high,

(2) High debts are only feasible for grad students taking out Grad PLUS loans,

(3) Graduates tend to find jobs with high incomes and have low unemployment rates,

(4) So the benefits of IBR go to high-income people.

The prior GAO study pokes holes in (3) and (4). Income is the independent variable, not debt, and incomes are low. Still, the WSJ’s reporting this time inserts enough adverbs to qualify these claims that I’m going to give this an earned “C.” There is no grade inflation on this blog.

Oddly, in its haste to cover the GAO’s attacks on the government’s accounting for student loans, the WSJ neglects to include immanent compensating factors that will raise student debtors’ incomes: tax cuts, stimulus, job growth, a harried Fed, and 3-4 percent growth in the near future. Things will rapidly get better for America’s student debtors.

WSJ Has No Idea Who Benefits From IBR/PAYE/REPAYE/ETC

A hypothetical: Jill and Jack live in the same town. Jill has many healthy habits but is a nurse who spends time around infected people, Jack less so. The town is hit with a case of spectrox toxaemia, a dangerous disease. The government offers to immunize people. Jill decides to be immunized; Jack does not. Jill does not get sick; Jack does. So, epidemiologists, did Jill not contract spectrox toxaemia because she was immunized or because of her healthy habits (or luck)?

If you’re The Wall Street Journal, the answer is her habits. Most of us would believe otherwise, given how dangerous spectrox toxaemia is and Jill’s contact with its victims.

Likewise, this line of reasoning animates the WSJ’s opinion of the government’s income-sensitive repayment programs for student debtors, which it claims benefit higher-debt people with better credit scores than lower-debt people who don’t. It’s unintuitive, if you’re the WSJ apparently, but it makes more sense to those of us familiar with the student debt system.

Here’s how it works: People who take out lots of debt might not in fact have the incomes to repay them, so they choose an income-sensitive repayment because the alternative is … Default! Thus, looking at how much they borrow is less important than looking at how much they’re paid.

Last year, in fact, the Government Accountability Office explored this topic and found that most people in income-sensitive repayment programs were earning less than $20,000 annually. So the Jills aren’t so different from the Jacks after all.

Sure, if there were no IBRs/PAYEs/REPAYEs/ETCs, then these Jills with good borrowing habits would be more likely to take deferments and forbearances, but their debts would still not be repaid. That’s because debts that can’t be repaid will not be repaid, no matter what someone’s credit score or how much they borrowed. What matters is what they earn, and college graduates don’t earn much these days.

And if you think the Jills have too much debt, then the problem isn’t IBR/ICR/REPAYE/ETC, it’s that the government lends too much money to people for degrees they don’t need.

NY Fed: Student Debt Delinquencies Still High in 2015

What started in 2012 just isn’t stopping. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Housing Debt and Credit Report, the percent of student-loan balances that are 90+ days delinquent was about 11.5 percent at the end of 2015, about where it was a year ago. Delinquencies for all other household debts save credit-card debt fell last year:

Student-Loan Delinquencies (2015)

This year, the NY Fed declined to discuss all those bad student loans, unlike last year.

Between fourth quarter 2014 and and the end of 2015, all non-housing debt grew from $3.15 trillion to $3.37 trillion. Student-loan debt accounted for 31 percent of the $220 billion increase.

Meanwhile, looking through Department of Education data, only 51.74 percent of all $1.204 trillion in federal student loans are in active repayment. 21 percent are in deferment or forbearance, and 9.5 percent are in default. Of the $585.8 billion of direct loans in repayment, forbearance, or deferment, $188.2 billion are on IBR or PAYE. Nearly one-third of all direct loans in repayment are in one of these plans, about 15.6 percent of all student loans.

This just doesn’t end. Until it will.

A Thanksgiving Troll From The New America Foundation

The New America Foundation’s article, “Income-Based Repayment Tops Repayment Plan Choice for First Time,” is such blatant policy trolling that you might wonder if it’s still Halloween and not Thanksgiving.

The NAF discovered that income-based-repayment program-enrollment efforts have borne fruit: It’s now the most popular plan among direct loan borrowers. (I haven’t checked myself, but let’s roll with it.) But the NAF’s response is confused: On the one hand, it likes low-income people enrolling in IBR, and it wants IBR to be the default repayment plan. This position is neither unusual or, superficially, disagreeable.

But on the other hand, growing IBR hordes keep the NAF awake at night:

Policymakers have to ask themselves, if college is a good investment, why are borrowers flocking to this insurance program? And why are those trends occurring while other economic indicators, like unemployment rates, are looking pretty good?

The easy answer is that college is not a good investment and “other economic indicators” are not looking pretty good. For one, the unemployment rate isn’t such a good measure of work when so many people leave the labor force.

Here’s the percent of 25-34-year-olds with zero earnings by education.

Percent of 25-to-34-Year-Olds With Zero Earnings by Education

(More here.)

In 2014, 13 percent of college-educated young ‘uns weren’t working; in 1997 that was 7.1 percent, equivalent to 640,000 people. It’s possible many of these folks are back in school, but that just tells us the opportunity cost of education is low—because there aren’t any good jobs. And yes, incomes are down too.

The NAF then trots out (trolls out?) the discredited IBR deadbeat after linking to the GAO finding that only a fraction of IBR enrollees have high incomes:

Maybe IBR enrollment is not a good proxy for borrowers falling on hard times — at least not since the Obama administration … [changed the program] from what was a safety net in 2009 to a heavily subsidized loan program for even well-off borrowers if they borrow for graduate school.

Except the NAF’s research on the changes to IBR didn’t show anything of the kind. Its “Safety Net or Windfall” report never documented a single IBR deadbeat. Instead it crafted nothing other than hypotheticals: Its “narrated borrower examples” even included a law grad who went to California Western, a law school with bad employment outcomes, yet managed to start a job at $65,000 per year. After ten years “Robert” miraculously switched to a job that paid him more than $100,000 per year, and after 25 years, he was make more than $200,000.

Why not just say that he inherited $40,000,000,000 from his wealthy uncle who also happened to be the pretender to both the Qing dynasty’s and Ottoman Empire’s thrones? It’d still fit the NAF’s definition of research.

In truth, only 14 of California Western’s 219 graduates in 2014 found full-time, long-term work at law firms with more than 25 lawyers. 58 were either unemployed or couldn’t be found. The Pay-As-You-Earn changes to IBR benefited these people quite a bit because they will never repay their loans anyway. Income is the independent variable, not debt, and it’s pretty unlikely that after 30 years any California Western grads will be earning $240,000 annually like “Robert”—unless you live in the NAF’s world where one can pass off fantasy as policy analysis.

Because the economy is improving, the NAF reasons, there must—must—be another reason those folks are signing onto IBR:

Borrowers may be enrolling in IBR because they know a good deal when they see one. And as word gets out, more and more students are likely to borrow larger sums to pursue graduate school because they plan to use IBR. That is especially true if they qualify for earlier loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness benefit. [Emphasis original.]

If this were true, then we’d expect law-school enrollments to swell, even at schools where the credential leads nowhere. Hey, who are students to argue if the government gives Grad PLUS dollars toward their living expenses and not demand they pay it back?

Except that’s still not happening, even three years after the NAF’s Kevin Carey predicted it would. It’s more likely that prospective applicants are sensitive to whether graduate programs lead to jobs at the other end, not whether they can get free money today. Here’s law school applicants:

Applicants, Admitted Applicants, 1Ls

(More here.)

I’ve asserted elsewhere that the law-school applicant crunch has slowed because of articles blathering about how now is the best time ever to go to law school. IBR is a secondary concern, if at all. Really, it’s bizarre that anyone would think that applicants are sophisticated enough to base their decision to go to law school on the existence of IBR but shallow enough to overlook evidence suggesting that J.D.s do not lead to long-term professional careers.

Moving on, the NAF then appears to argue that the Obama administration is wrong to characterize IBR as an insurance policy against student-loan defaults because defaults are still increasing. The NAF says this is a “strange trend” even though it offers no reason to believe that savvy borrowers might be signing on to IBR instead of defaulting, while others haven’t received the message. Maybe both types of borrowers have low incomes and can’t otherwise repay their loans in full, but this assumption negates the NAF’s position that the economy is improving. Oh well.

Finally, the NAF worries that outstanding student loans are growing despite falling issuances because either (a) debtors’ incomes are alarmingly low, or (b) IBR is too generous. Again, only a few paragraphs earlier, the NAF cited the GAO study that found 80 percent of IBR enrollees earn $20,000 or less. Incredible. The ghoulish IBR deadbeat lives on.

So there you have it: In one post the NAF starts by arguing that more people should enroll in IBR to avoid default and then concludes that we should be troubled by … more people enrolling in IBR to avoid default. If it’s (a), then the problem is underemployment and low-wage jobs, not IBR; if it’s (b), then the problem is excessive government lending for unneeded education, not IBR.

That’s enough troll, I’m ready for turkey now. Enjoy your Thanksgiving, too.

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Post-script: In case any of you were wondering, Congress can change or revoke IBR at any time because the Higher Education Act is incorporated by reference into student-loan promissory notes. Because the number of IBR variants is increasing, it’s probable that the government is hoping to simplify all of them into one that will probably not be so generous to graduate students as PAYE is. This is a compelling reason to stay away from grad school just because IBR is around. (More here.)

How Many PSLF Deadbeats Are There?

Answer: Don’t Ask The Wall Street Journal.

According to Josh Mitchell’s, “U.S. Student-Loan Forgiveness Program Proves Costly,” 295,000 people are signed up for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which cancels federal student loans after 10 years of payments with no tax liability afterwards, unlike other income-based repayment plans.

But before going further, a few compliments:

(1) The WSJ is correct that PSLF is a “forgiveness program,” in contrast to at least one past instance when the WSJ called IBR a “student-debt forgiveness program.” More accurately, IBR is a monthly-payment-reduction program.

(2) Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever defended PSLF, so the WSJ’s examples of doctors taking advantage of the program, even though there’s a good chance they could repay their loans, are more believable than past reporting.

(3) Again, it’s nice to see the spotlight turned away from law grads.

However, the WSJ still doesn’t answer the question: How many of the 295,000 debtors (and projected 600,000 over the next decade) on PSLF will earn high enough incomes to compromise PSLF? Does the program work on net? If the IBR deadbeat is a myth, then shouldn’t we be just as critical of the PSLF deadbeat?

I don’t really have a dog in the PSLF fight, and it should be fairly easy to reform it to take the advantages away from the deadbeats, but the right questions still aren’t being asked. If the unfair beneficiaries are few in number, then they shouldn’t be sensationalized. (Amusingly, the New America Foundation argues that PSLF should be eliminated entirely because the WSJ made it look so bad that it could lead to further backlash against IBR, which, of course, the NAF has never engaged in.)

Speaking of asking the right questions: Is the problem PSLF, or is it the Grad PLUS Loan Program?