September 17, 2009
The House of Representatives is poised to vote today on legislation to eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan Program and increase funding for Federal Pell Grants. The bill, currently known as the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009, is widely expected to be approved by the House, possibly with some amount of bipartisan support. While most of the provisions in the bill have relatively widespread backing, one element has generated a fair amount of controversy. Under the proposed legislation, all federal student loans, such as Stafford Loans and Plus Loans, originated after July 1, 2010 would be part of the Federal Direct Loans Program, rather than the current bank-based system.
While initially both sides appeared ready for battle over the proposed legislation, controversy and rhetoric have cooled since the legislation was introduced. Alternative proposals that preserve some element of FFEL or otherwise grant a larger role to banks than in the bill currently before Congress have been proposed, but ultimately failed to generate the savings the Congressional Budget Office estimates this plan to carry, and thus have gained little momentum. Some Representatives still suggest submitting the proposal for further study and reviewing alternatives, but the plan to eliminate FFEL has gained the most widespread support.
Many Republican lawmakers still oppose the proposal to switch entirely to Direct Loans, with some making comparisons to the bank bailouts of earlier this year and the healthcare legislation currently being debated. The move to direct lending has also been repeatedly framed as eliminating choice for students, though the choice of direct loans versus bank-based loans has always rested with colleges and never with student borrowers.
Despite these objections, though, the bill appears to have the support necessary to pass the House and move on to the Senate, where it may face greater challenges. The option of passing it through the process of budget reconcilliation, which requires only a majority vote in the Senate, has been proposed, but whether the Senate goes that route remains to be seen.
September 18, 2009
Despite some Republication opposition, The House of Representatives voted 253-171 to approve a bill Thursday that would stop lending from the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan Program in favor of the Department of Education-run Federal Direct Loans Program by July 2010. The bill, known as the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009, would also increase the current maximum Federal Pell Grant from $5,350 to $5,550 and provide for annual increases to the grant in the years to follow through a $40 billion pool of funding over the next decade.
The bill is expected to have more of a fight when it comes before the Senate, where even Democrats have voiced concerns about the potential for job losses in states that headquarter private loan agencies. Many Republican lawmakers argue that the student loan industry has served college students well, and oppose the government takeover.
Amendments to the bill that failed before its passage looked at ways to allow the private sector to continue student lending as a way to offer the college-bound more choice in financing their educations. Amendments that passed included strengthening support services to borrowers and making part-time students eligible for Year-Round Federal Pell Grants, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid and Administrators.
The bill would also:
The legislation has broad support from the Obama administration. The president called the bill a "historic set of reforms," adding in a statement that the bill "will end the billions upon billions of dollars in unwarranted subsidies that we hand out to banks and financial institutions." Currently, about one-forth of students' loans come through the government's direct loan program.
September 28, 2009
As the Senate prepares to begin looking at similar measures recently passed by the House to stop or further regulate bank-based lending, student-loan companies have been looking for ways to lobby for their own cause, spending millions in the process, according to an analysis of federal records done by The Chronicle for Higher Education.
Earlier this month, the House of Representatives voted to approve the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009, legislation that would stop lending from the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan Program in favor of the Department of Education-run Federal Direct Loans Program by July 2010. Student-loan companies have understandably been feeling threatened, and have spent nearly $14 million over the last year and a half lobbying the government to abandon attempts to stop bank-based lending. The country's largest lender Sallie Mae, which handed out about a quarter of the nation's federal student loans last year, spent $2.5 million this year alone, according to the Chronicle. The Senate's version of the legislation could come onto the floor as early as this week.
While the legislation has strong support from the Obama administration, some Democrats in Congress have voiced concerns about the potential for job losses in states that headquarter private loan agencies. Sallie Mae has reported it would need to lay off about a quarter of its workforce if Congress voted to end bank-based lending. Republican lawmakers have argued more broadly that the student loan industry, while it could use some tweaks, has served college students well and should not go under the control of the federal government.
So does the bill stand a chance? The Obama administration would like it to be a sure thing, as legislation to limit bank-based lending was a campaign promise during election season. The Congressional Budget Office claims it would save taxpayers around $87 billion, but that's a figure disputed by Republican lawmakers. Colleges and admissions officials seem to be on the fence, worried mainly about any delays in financial aid funding for their neediest students and potential costs to schools' already tight budgets. The bill's proponents argue that savings from the legislation would either go toward overhauling the financial aid system or higher education programs. While the Obama administration has urged lawmakers to avoid interactions with special interest groups, the upcoming arguments on the Senate floor will determine whether those lobbying dollars swayed any opinions.
October 9, 2009
The much-lauded new Income-Based Repayment plan for federal student loans has been available to student borrowers since July, but those who could potentially benefit may have difficulty enrolling in it. The Department of Education's Direct Loans website allows borrowers to enroll online in several student loan repayment plans, including the Standard, Graduated, and Income-Contingent options using a convenient drop-down menu. However, after over three months Income-Based Repayment is still missing from this menu, making it more difficult for borrowers to enroll in this plan, and possibly preventing some students from even realizing it's an option.
For many students who have large debt loads, are struggling to find work or are currently working low-wage jobs that make repaying student loans difficult, the new Income-Based Repayment plan may be their best option for repaying their federal student loans. It allows borrowers to only pay 15% of their discretionary income (their adjusted gross income minus 150% of the poverty line for their household size) once they've entered repayment, then cancels their remaining loan debt after 25 years of repayment. Borrowers enrolled in Income-Based Repayment can also take advantage of the 10-year public service loan forgiveness program, meaning they can make 10 years of affordable payments while working eligible public service jobs, then have their remaining debt forgiven.
Despite its appeal, though, students can currently only apply for Income-Based Repayment using a paper form, blank versions of which are available on the Direct Loans website, though not at all well-advertised. Students can eventually dig through the Direct Loans website to find it (we found it by clicking on the announcement in the upper right corner of www.dl.ed.gov, then following links through two additional pages), then complete it and mail it to the Department of Education. This is a somewhat time-consuming process, obviously, and may deter some borrowers who either lack the time or resources to locate, print and submit the form.
In addition to a missing online option and a buried enrollment form, the Direct Loans website also doesn't list Income-Based Repayment on their repayment options comparison site for logged-in borrowers (a calculator allows you to compare payments among Standard, Graduated, and Income-Contingent options but makes no mention of Income-Based Repayment). While a calculator is available through the Federal Student Aid website, it's not readily accessible from the Direct Loans site. To even choose Income-Based Repayment, then, borrowers will need to employ two different calculators on two different Education Department websites simultaneously, adding another confusing and time-consuming hurdle to the process.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Department of Education is aware Income-Based Repayment is missing from the online enrollment options on their site, but they don't plan to add it until March, citing a lack of resources due to the possibility Congress will soon switch all federal student loans to the Direct Loans program, as called for in a student loan bill currently under consideration. Hopefully, other revisions to the website will happen then, as well, but for students investigating student loan repayment options before then, enrolling in Income-Based Repayment will remain a hassle.
November 12, 2009
As the wrangling over proposed healthcare legislation drags on in the Senate, progress on other bills has stalled, including a piece of legislation that would impact federal student financial aid programs. The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, passed by the House of Representatives in September, has yet to see its counterpart taken up for debate in the Senate. Yet the debate over student loan reform is heating up again as the Department of Education and lenders both attempt to press their agendas forward.
Student loan reform has been a topic of contention since President Obama announced his 2010 budget proposal at the beginning of the year. Among them was doing away with the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which subsidizes private banks to make and service federal student loans, such as Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans. Students would borrow directly from the Department of Education through the Direct Loans Program. The money saved from the subsidies would then be channeled into Pell Grants and Perkins Loans, among other education funding priorities. The proposed changes would go into effect on July 1, 2010 necessitating a quick switchover to direct lending for all colleges still participating in FFELP.
After the bill passed the House, the Department of Education began urging schools to voluntarily make the change to Direct Loans, which concerned some financial aid administrators and most lending agencies. Concerns have been expressed over the efficiency of direct lending, the loss of choice in eliminating FFEL, the feasibility of making the switch, and the continuation of services such as financial aid counseling that some lenders currently provide. Many of these were aired at a recent meeting of a panel of financial aid experts in Washington. Representatives of student lenders were also there to champion an alternate plan that would bring some of the savings proposed by SAFRA, but would maintain a role for banks in student lending.
It's widely expected that the Senate will ultimately pass a version of the bill similar to what was passed by the House, but when that will happen remains uncertain. Procedural regulations and concerns over support are currently preventing the bill from progressing until the issue of healthcare is settled. In the meantime, it appears debate, analysis, and lobbying will continue on both sides of the issue.
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