August 11, 2009
Student loans have received a lot of attention lately, especially in light of the ongoing recession. As average student debt increases and post-graduate job prospects become less certain, borrowers are struggling to make payments and avoid default on their loans. Meanwhile, lenders are tightening credit requirements or opting out of the student loan industry altogether. While Congress and President Obama are contemplating additional reforms to student lending on top of recent fixes that have provided some help to borrowers, relying on loans to pay for school is still a scary idea for many students.
However, there are some innovative private sector solutions students may want to consider. Alternative lending programs, such as peer-to-peer lending have received much publicity lately, as has a new program called Student Choice that makes it easier for students to find private loans through credit unions. On top of this, BridgeSpan Financial has launched a new service called SafeStart, which acts as insurance for students' Stafford loan payments.
In exchange for a down payment of $40 to $60 per $1,000 they've borrowed, SafeStart will extend an interest-free line of credit to students facing financial hardships in the first five years after graduation, allowing them to continue making payments on their Stafford loans and avoid defaulting or seeing loan amounts balloon as interest accrues during a forbearance period. SafeStart will cover up to 36 loan payments in the first 60 months of the loan, provided a student's loan payments exceed 10 percent of their monthly income.
Currently, SafeStart is only available for Stafford loans, and not PLUS loans or private loans. Stafford loan borrowers already have several other options for repayment if they find themselves struggling, including the new federal income-based repayment plan, which allows borrowers to only make payments if they meet certain income requirements and forgives remaining loan balances after 25 years. Students can also apply for temporary forbeareances if they need, though interest on the loans will still accrue.
September 15, 2009
According to newly released data, default rates on federal student loans continued to climb in 2008, reaching a nine-year high of 6.7 percent, most likely as a result of the recession. The annual cohort default rate, released by the Department of Education on Monday, covers federal student loans that went into repayment between October 2006 and September 2007 and had gone into default by September 2008.
The 2007 cohort default rate was 1.5 percentage points higher than the rate for the previous year, as significant increases took place across the board. Defaults were higher in the bank-based Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program than in the Federal Direct Loans Program, which is typically the case, but the discrepancy between the two grew this year. A total of 7.2 percent of loans in the bank-based system were in default, compared to 4.8 percent of the loans in the Direct Loans program. he numbers for 2006 were 5.3 and 4.7 percent, respectively.
Much of this discrepancy can be attributed to a higher percentage of students at proprietary schools participating in the FFEL Program, as these schools carried a default rate of 11.1 percent, compared to rates of 6.0 percent and 3.8 percent at public and private colleges. Still, the lower default rate in the direct lending program is likely to be brought up as Congress debates moving all lending from FFEL into Direct Loans.
Default is defined as failure to make payments on a student loan according to the terms of the master promissory note the borrower signed, and federal student loans are considered in default only after several months of missed payments. This means that 6.7 percent of students in this cohort had stopped making payments for 270 days or more within 1-2 years of their first loan payment coming due. It's likely that the cohort default rate numbers released paint an optimistic picture of the number of borrowers currently having trouble making payments on student loans.
New repayment options may help troubled borrowers, though, and several have been introduced in recent months. One is the federal Income-Based Repayment Plan, which allows students to make payments they can afford and forgives all remaining debt after 25 years. Borrowers worried about repayment can also look into loan forgiveness programs offered in exchange for public service, which have been expanded under the Higher Education Act and national service legislation.
The best way for students to avoid the prospect of defaulting on loans is to limit borrowing as much as possible. Put some serious effort into a scholarship search, and consider affordability when doing your college search, as well. Practices such as keeping your options open and landing a scholarship can go a long way towards reducing your loan debt and your risk of being unable to pay once you graduate.
September 30, 2009
Colorado's CollegeInvest agency, an organization in charge of state loan forgiveness and scholarship programs, is facing criticism and increased scrutiny from the state's legislature after an audit revealed conflicts of interest and a surprisingly low number of scholarship awards being made by the board. The state legislature will now require the agency to report to them monthly to ensure proper oversight of the state's scholarship and student loan funds.
The audit found that the CollegeInvest Early Achievers Scholarship, a fund that awards high-achieving high school students with college financial aid, had only given out a tiny fraction of the awards it was expected to since it was established in 2005. Students opt into the scholarship program as 7th, 8th or 9th graders and pledge to take pre-college coursework in high school and maintain a GPA of 2.5 or better. The Colorado legislature estimated that the scholarship fund would award about $3.8 million in scholarships per year, but awarded only $91,000 this year. A volunteerism scholarship program and a student loan forgiveness programs managed by CollegeInvest also fell significantly short of goals and projections.
Meanwhile, the fund incurred over $12 million in administrative expenses beyond salaries and benefits for its employees. Reports on the audit note that the program has spent $10 on administrative costs for every $1 in scholarships awarded. The audit also found conflicts of interest with the board awarding funding to other organizations they were connected to and giving out large payments to financial advisors.
CollegeInvest officials say that the program is off to a slow start and that potential conflicts of interest were disclosed and didn't affect board decisions. For now, the state legislature has just asked for increased oversight of the program. But for Colorado students who were expecting to benefit from academic scholarships, community service scholarships, or loan forgiveness programs for which money is in place but funds aren't being awarded in large amounts, any change in these programs cannot come soon enough.
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.
December 1, 2009
Dreading student loan payments? While it may seem counterintuitive, you might want to think about law school. Two law schools are now offering to pick up the tab on student loan repayment for their graduates who go into public service. The University of California at Berkeley School of Law and Georgetown University Law Center are both unveiling new student loan forgiveness programs to complement the federal public service loan forgiveness program.
Attorneys in public service professions typically earn much less than their colleagues who pursue more lucrative legal careers. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median income of all lawyers at just over $100,000, public interest lawyers can expect to start out making around $41,000 and many law students can expect to graduate with at least double that amount in debt. This can make pursuing a career in public service while living independently and avoiding default on debts nearly impossible. This is where loan forgiveness comes in.
Under the federal loan forgiveness program, college graduates who work in public service (a category with a surprisingly expansive definition-most governmental, non-profit, and education careers are covered) for ten years while making payments on their student loans through the federal Income Based Repayment plan will see their remaining debt forgiven. Income Based Repayment requires borrowers to pay no more than 15 percent of their discretionary income on their loans each year.
The programs at Georgetown and Berkeley take care of graduates' monthly loan payments for the ten years it takes to have their loans forgiven, provided they pursue legal careers in public service areas and earn below particular income thresholds. Berkeley grads qualify for some amount of help if they earn less than $100,000 per year, with their total loan costs covered if they make less than $65,000. Georgetown currently covers graduates earning less than $75,000 but plans to expand its program as funding allows. Until recently, Harvard University offered a plan that provided one free year of law school to students planning to work in public service, but that plan was rescinded due to economic hardships facing the university. However, other schools still offer financial assistance to students pursuing law degrees, especially ones that lead to careers in public service.
These programs still may not cover private loan debt that students amass while pursuing law degrees. However, law students are able to borrow more in federal loans, such as Stafford Loans and PLUS Loans, than undergraduates typically can. There are also a variety of law scholarships available to students who are interested in pursuing legal careers. If you're interested in public service, but not in law, there are other forms of financial assistance available, as well.
December 14, 2009
As Congress continues to puzzle out questions of student loans and consumer protection, new information released today suggests that young adults attempting to repay their student loans may be having even more trouble than previously thought.
As a condition of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, the US Department of Education has started tracking three-year instead of two-year default rates for federal student loans. The first set of data was released today and the numbers are pretty shocking: the three-year cohort default rates are nearly twice as high as the two-year rates overall--11.8 percent compared to 6.7 percent.
Default is defined as failure to make payments on a student loan according to the terms of the master promissory note the borrower signed, and federal student loans are considered in default only after nine months of missed payments. This means that 12 percent of students who started repaying their loans in 2006 had stopped making payments for 270 days or more by September 2009.
The difference between two-year and three-year default rates was most dramatic at for-profit colleges, rising from 11% to 21.2%. For-profit colleges have the highest default rates in both two-year and three-year measures, and also make up the largest proportion of institutions that may lose the ability to distribute federal student financial aid in 2014, when the rule changes associated with the new three-year default rate calculations go into place.
Colleges will become ineligible to participate in federal student aid programs if their cohort default rates are above 30 percent (currently 25 percent) for three consecutive years, or if they go over 40 percent any one year. Inside Higher Ed has published a list of institutions whose three-year cohort default rate is over 30 percent this year-in addition to a number of for-profit colleges, several community colleges have also made the list.
In addition to this information's implications for colleges, it also means that default on federal student loans is even more common than previously assumed. More than 1 in 10 students currently default on a loan within three years, and it's possible that a significant percentage of students may default on their loans after more time has passed. If you're planning to borrow to pay for college, do so wisely. You may want to make sure that you only take out an amount that you can pay back in a worst-case employment scenario. It's not too late to start your scholarship search for next year (or even this year) to help cut down on the amount you have to borrow, as well.
January 12, 2010
What if those worried about whether they can handle the rigors of college had an option to ease their worries about whether they were making a good investment? Would "failure insurance" get more of these hesitant students onto college campuses? How would students pay into such a program if they're already struggling to come up with the funds to cover college costs?
An academic paper called Insuring College Failure Risk put together by Satyajit Chatterjee, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and A. Felicia Ionescu, an assistant professor of economics at Colgate University, looked at the benefits of failure insurance, or policies that would reimburse students or offer forgiveness of some of their student loans if they flunked out of school. The paper concluded that the policies would be most useful to students from low-income backgrounds, a population that has been found to have higher college drop-out rates than other groups of students.
So how would it all work? The authors put forward a series of mathematical models that looked at both students' decisions to go to college and their decisions to drop out, finding that most any decision students make about college is a financial one. An insurance policy that offered students an amount that was high enough to make sense for them to continue taking classes, and often taking on more debt, but not so high that it would be an easy decision to drop out for the financial incentive, would be most successful. Students would be eligible for some loan forgiveness if they met the criteria for failing grades. Because students would still bear some of their student loan burden, that total would go toward something of a deductible, and could potentially work to keep more students in school so that they can avoid paying those fees to whatever insurance carriers would be offering these policies. Students would only have one shot at such an insurance policy, meaning they'd be on their own if they returned to school later in life after having flunked out.
Obviously something needs to be done to address high college dropout rates and the number of former students out there saddled with student loan debts but no degrees to speak of. According to the Federal Reserve Bank’s Survey of Consumer Finances, on average about 47 percent of those not in school with student loans to repay report that they don’t have two- or four-year college degrees. An article this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests there's no way to tell whether the academic paper has any legs outside of academic circles, and also points to other researchers' suggestions that offer students an incentive to stay in school - lowering tuition and fees and increasing access to and amounts of financial aid assistance, as examples.
January 26, 2010
Even as much of the student loan agenda President Obama announced last year remains stalled in Congress, he is expected to propose a new plan to assist middle-class workers in repaying their student loans as part of his State of the Union address on Wednesday. On Monday, the White House announced some of the points Obama plans to address, and among the items is a plan to make student loan payments more affordable.
Obama’s proposal would alter the federal Income-Based Repayment plan to make it beneficial to a wider range of borrowers. Currently, college graduates who choose Income-Based Repayment are expected to make loan payments equivalent to 15% of their discretionary income each month (defined as income above 150% of the poverty level for the borrower’s household size) and to make consistent payments for 25 years, at which time their remaining loan balances will be forgiven. Under the new plan, borrowers would have to make payments of only 10% of their discretionary income each month, and would only have to make payments for 20 years before their remaining balances are forgiven.
This change would have an added bonus for students pursuing careers in public service. Students who enroll in IBR and work in approved public service fields (such as teaching, healthcare, non-profit work, or government employment) can see their loans forgiven after just 10 years of payments in IBR. For many students, this can mean a substantial reduction in their overall loan obligations as well as more easily manageable payments as they begin their careers.
To illustrate the benefits of the President’s proposal, the Institute for College Access and Success provided the following example: someone with $33,000 in student loans who currently makes $30,000 per year would have a loan payment of $110 per month under this plan, compared to $170 per month under the current IBR plan, and $380 per month under the standard repayment plan.
Although it has the potential to enormously benefit individual borrowers, the proposed adjustment to the IBR plan is likely to run into some opposition. In the example above, as in many other cases, the new IBR plan will result in a significantly smaller amount being repaid by borrowers, especially those who go into public service. However, it may substantially reduce borrowers’ likelihood to default, which would prove beneficial overall. Still, calculating the overall cost to taxpayers is likely to be vital to this proposal’s viability, especially given the Obama administration’s announcement of a planned three-year freeze on federal spending.
Overall, these changes would benefit an estimated 36 percent of borrowers, according to Inside Higher Ed. The National Association of Colleges and Employers lists the average starting salary for college graduates at $48,633, and depending on household size and overall debt, graduates in this bracket may not see much benefit from IBR. By contrast, the average starting salary for liberal arts graduates is $36,624, making them most likely to benefit from this program. However, many recent graduates are considering themselves lucky to find jobs paying substantially below these figures right now. It’s likely that a broad range of college graduates, especially those pursuing careers in fields that have been badly impacted by the recession, may welcome the proposed changes.
What do you think of this plan? Would it help you or would you rather see federal resources being used in another way?
February 2, 2010
As a response to "operating in unsettled and ... unsettling times," Williams College has decided to stop offering its no-loan student-aid program and to reintroduce modest student loans to students' financial aid packages.
In an open letter to the Williams community released over the weekend, the school's Interim President Bill Wagner said the change would not affect current students, but beginning with the class that enters in the fall of 2011. Families below a certain income will still not be expected to borrow at all, and other students will be offered loans on a sliding scale up to a maximum size that the school says will still be among the lowest in the country.
Student loans were eliminated at Williams in the 2008-2009 academic year, joining more than 30 private colleges that had adopted similar policies, such as Amherst and Claremont McKenna colleges. (There have already been rumors that Amherst College may join Williams in amending its own policy.) The decision to cut loans out of students' financial aid packages came at a time when the school's endowment had grown so large that there were demands to spend more. But at the same time, more students were applying for and qualifying for financial aid.
Williams isn't the only college to renege on a promise to students, nor is it the first. Lafayette College raised the loan limit it pledged to students from $2,500 a year to $3,500 a year if they had family incomes of between $50,000 and $100,000. Dartmouth College has been requiring loans again for those at certain levels now exempt from borrowing. Endowments across the country have plummeted, suffering their worst losses since the Great Depression. According to an article in The Chronicle for Higher Education published last week, the value of college endowments declined by an average of 23 percent from 2008 to 2009. An endowment student sponsored by the National Association of College and University Business Officers found that of the 654 institutions that reported carrying long-term debt, the average debt load grew from $109.1 million to $167.8 million.
Are "no loans" policies feasible at all? Some critics explain that there are students currently exempt from taking out loans who could easily be able to pay them off once they graduate. Students with family incomes of more than $120,000 have the resources to borrow less than other students, critics say, and the focus instead should be on helping low-income students keep their loan debts at a minimum. Williams hasn't been clear as to what the family income cutoff would be for its new policy, but it will undoubtedly hit the middle class hard.
April 27, 2010
While many students – and their parents – will say no amount of student loan debt is ideal, a new report has zeroed in on those at the top of the pile, those who borrow most and may be most at risk for defaulting on their loans and running the risk of hurting their credit scores.
The newest student debt story comes from a report released yesterday by the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, which looked at data from 2007-2008 graduates who participated in the “National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.” It paid particular attention to the 17 percent of all bachelor’s degree recipients in that year who graduated with at least $30,500 in student loans. Of those, one in six had average student loan bills of $45,700, with much of those loans coming from private lenders who typically lend to students at higher interest rates.
An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education focused on one particular detail included in the report – that those who borrow more are disproportionately black. Although the sample size was small, and the report’s researchers were hesitant to place too much importance on any breakdowns based on race, the numbers did show some differences in that category. According to the study, 27 percent of black bachelor’s degree recipients borrowed $30,500 or more, compared to 16 percent of white graduates, 14 percent of Hispanic students, and 9 percent of Asian students. Those numbers have little to do with income, however. Middle-class students tended to borrow more than those coming from low-income households, perhaps suggesting that those are the students who are more likely to attend private colleges rather than public institutions.
How else did the report describe those students who borrowed most?
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