The Cost of Opportunity

commoditiesWe’ve all heard it so many times that we don’t even notice it anymore:  Education is a commodity.  College is an investment in your own human capital. Students are consumers, savvy individuals who bear the risks and rewards of their own investments.  Student loans are the cost of opportunity.

But this familiar “Education is a Commodity” refrain is not a benign turn of phrase.    Using the language of the market to describe higher education is driving the disastrous rise in student debt.

Why?  Because we can draw a direct line between Continue reading

Putting the Community Back in College

public croppedCommunity colleges have been much in the news since President Obama proposed free tuition for millions of students. This plan isn’t cheap and states will have to change their spending habits to reap the benefits of expanded community college for all.  They’ll need to invest considerable sums to both match the President’s proposal, and reverse historic declines in state funding so that they have the capacity to serve millions of new students.

But why should states invest in community colleges instead of relying on for-profit schools to fill the gaps, as they have done for the past decade?

Community colleges train students for much lower tuition than for-profit schools.  Students can get a comparable (or better) education for a fraction of the cost, leading to much lower rates of student debt.  This justifies some measure of state investment, if only to keep the scourges of high debt burden and default from ruining the lives of local students.

Community colleges also offer community benefits that for-profit schools do not. 

These institutions are not just “tickets to the middle class” Continue reading

The Color of Student Debt

“Racial disparities in student debt are closely related to the stark racial disparities in wealth characterizing American society.”

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Race-based differences in student loans are little understood and often ignored in debates about higher education financing.  New research might help us to change that.  Back in 2010, the College Board noted that 27 percent of black bachelor’s degree recipients had student-loan debt of $30,500 or more, compared with just 16 percent of white bachelor’s degree students.  Of those who borrow, black students have an average of over $4,000 more debt than white students.

In “The Color of Student Debt,” researchers lay out evidence that two factors account for “over half of the black-white disparity in student loan debt.”

First, African-American families are much less likely to have wealth (as opposed to income) available to help family members attend college.  How much less likely?  Black families have, on average, six times less wealth Continue reading

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul: Social Security and student loans

Social Security is the most important anti-poverty program in the country.  It kept 22 million people out of poverty in 2012.   What does this have to do with student debt?  Two words:  Treasury Offset.  The federal government can seize portions of your Social Security (including Social Security Disability) check to pay back defaulted federal student loans.  Embed from Getty Images

These seizures are rising sharply. In 2001, 6 recipients had their Social Security offset.  This past year?  156,000.  The total amount garnished came to around $150 million– money that seniors did not put back into the economy.    This problem will continue to grow.  Millions of seniors have student loan debts, and their default rates are higher than the average, standing at roughly 12.5%.

Social Security garnishments are what I call a collateral consequence of default, along with tax and wage garnishment and destroyed credit scores.  Because there is no statute of limitations, it doesn’t matter when you or the student you co-signed for took out the loan.

What do these garnishment look like for real people?  Offsets are limited to 15 percent of a borrower’s benefit, and the first $750 per month of benefits is shielded from student loan offset.  In July 2014, the average retirement benefit was $1255.  Someone with this benefit level would lose $75 to a student loan garnishment.  Twenty-two percent of married couples and about 47 percent of unmarried people rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income.  Women, especially women of color, are more likely to rely almost exclusively on Social Security for income.  While $75 a month might not seem so much to high wage earner, it pushes seniors on fixed incomes that much further into poverty.

Which brings me to the real question:  Why are we prioritizing the collection of old federal student loans over keeping seniors out of poverty?

The CFPB bares its teeth

The CFPB bares its teeth

In a move applauded by consumer advocates, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed suit against ITT Technical Institute.  The Huffington Post reports that this marks the first suit brought by the new consumer protection agency against a for-profit school.

The complaint alleges that ITT violated the Consumer Financial Protection Act and the Truth in Lending Act by enticing students through deceptive marketing and strong-arm recruiting tactics. ITT allegedly misrepresented its graduation and placement rates, and misled consumers about the school’s accreditation.

The complaint also alleges that ITT coerced students into taking out private loans for ITT’s own private gain. How? Well, tuition at ITT is much higher than students can afford, even after maxing out federal financial aid. To close the tuition gap, ITT offered students temporary credit from ITT. That credit came due within nine months–something many of the students were not told during a rushed financial aid discussion. When many of those students were unable to pay the hefty tuition price tag within the required nine months, ITT allegedly forced those students into private loans, due within 10 years, with a 16% interest rate. Defaults at ITT on those private loans topped 70%.

This isn’t ITT’s first legal rodeo.   Former students sued ITT for misrepresentation in 1995.  In 2005, ITT settled a lawsuit with the state of California for inflating grades in order to get more state aid. And ITT’s problems don’t end there; it revealed in an recent SEC filing that a long list of state Attorneys General have issued subpoenas or “civil investigative demands” under state consumer protection statutes.

Of Student Debt and Stagnant Wages

Student debt is bearing the blame for continued weakness in the housing market.  According to the Washington Post, “regulators and industry experts warn that young adults can no longer save for down payments or qualify for the mortgages they need to buy their first homes.”

But Rohit Chopra, student loan ombudsman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, points out that debt burden alone does not tell the whole tale for first-time homebuyers:

“Real wages when adjusted for inflation have actually been flat for new college graduates for about the past ten years. So young people have more debt but are earning the same or less income.”

The prepay prevention plan

Every student loan has a prepay option, but servicers make them almost impossible to use.  Ever wonder why they make it so hard?  Rohit Chopra and his team at the CFPB asked private loan servicers and came to some conclusions:

“Creating obstacles for borrowers to direct payments to a specific loan can increase future servicing revenue.  Incentive misalignment was one cause of significant harm to consumers in the mortgage servicing industry. This may also be a contributing factor to the frustration experienced by many private student loan borrowers who submit complaints to the CFPB about payment allocation issues.”

In other words, the harder it is to prepay, the more money the servicer makes.

Defaults rise, by any measure

The Department of Education has released the most recent numbers for federal student loan default:  “The national two-year cohort default rate rose from 9.1 percent for FY 2010 to 10 percent for FY 2011. The three-year cohort default rate rose from 13.4 percent for FY 2009 to 14.7 percent for FY 2010.”

The Department is in the midst of changing the time frame in which it measures default, from a two- to a three-year window.  Under the new measure, 14.7% of the students whose loans entered repayment between October of 2009 and September of 2010 defaulted before the end of September of 2012.  This means that around 600,000 student loan borrowers (out of a cohort of 4 million) defaulted.  The consequences of default are severe and can be disastrous for students and their families.

The Huffington Post points out that these default numbers are only one component of an increasingly troubling picture, noting that “about $52 billion in student loans that had been current became delinquent in the first half of the year, the highest first-half total recorded since 2003.”

Does student debt reduce lifetime wealth?

Last week an economist asked me for my most impressive fact about student debt (yep, people in DC really do ask that sort of thing over dinner.  Maybe that’s why they don’t let us outside of the Beltway.)

Student debt swims in facts and figures, but the one that I tend to pull out a parties filled with young urban professionals is that a dual income young couple with bachelor’s degrees and an average amount of debt ($53,000) will lose over $200,000 of lifetime wealth compared to a comparable couple without debt (read the study, by Demos, here.)  A huge chunk of this loss is in retirement savings, despite the higher incomes that go with higher education.  This fact tends to bring the conversation about “why is student debt bad” home in ways that talking about the possibility of default might not.  Then people are usually better primed for the most important part of the story:  that 200K is the best case scenario.  Low-income students, students of color and students of for-profit schools — especially those who default– will see even larger lifetime losses.

Student Debt Blame Game

Jordan Weissman over at the Atlantic wants to know which colleges are to blame for the explosive growth of student debt.  He notes that public disinvestment is driving up debt at public schools (which generate the lion’s share of debt because they educate the majority of students) but that for-profits have the highest rates of default.  And don’t worry, he points the finger at private non-profits that have failed to rein in costs, too.  Apparently, there is plenty of blame to go around.