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The Student Debt Business: A Way Forward

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The Student Debt Business: A Way ForwardMy daughter works for a nonprofit organization. The pay’s not great but she loves what she does. So much so that she’s now ready to take the next step in her personal career development plan — graduate school. As it turns out, though, there’s only one university nearby that offers the curriculum she needs, and there are two big problems with its program.

To start, it requires a full-time commitment, which means she’d have to give up the job she’s held for three years, along with the benefits package that comes with it. The program also costs more than $90,000 to complete — $90,000! — on top of her $200,000 undergrad degree, and for a position that’ll likely pay less than $50,000 per year.

Coincidentally, I ran into a former student who’s at the other end of the scholastic timeline. He was finishing his graduate work and needed advice on a serious matter.

[Credit Score Tool: Get your free credit score and report card from Credit.com]

Free Tool: Credit Report CardMy student was the first in his family to go to college. His mom and dad weren’t wealthy nor were they financially savvy. However, they managed to save a little money for his schooling, but not nearly enough to cover all the costs. So they left it up to him to work out the details with the school’s financial aid office. Six years later, he has more than $100,000 of student loan debt and too little cash flow to cover the monthly payments.

With these and other similarly disturbing stories in mind, it’s hard not to conclude that higher education’s more students equals more revenues business model isn’t just broken, it’s dead.

Costs are too high, curricula have relevancy and structural issues, and the mechanisms for delivering educational content are out of step with the needs and expectations of today’s learner-consumers. In business school-speak: it’s a valueless proposition.

The financial markets have also taken notice.

The Larger Issue

Recently, Moody’s Investors Service ascribed a negative outlook to the higher education sector, attributing its problems to the weak economy’s impact on family income and household net worth.

Frankly, it’s more serious than that.

Higher education’s future prospects are inexorably linked to its past — the legacy of financial hardship many college graduates are left to endure — as well as to the actions the schools continue (or not) to take today.

For example:

  • College enrollments are poised to decline. But instead of responding by fundamentally rethinking program structure, content and delivery, not to mention systematically right-sizing the expense sides of their operations in the process, many schools appear only to be pushing at the edges of their profit and loss statements by curtailing discretionary spending, instituting tuition price-hikes that continue to outpace the rate of inflation, pitching (hopefully) lucrative corporate sponsorships and, when all else fails, tapping endowment funds, all in an effort to bridge their budgetary shortfalls.
  • The most recent Federal Reserve Bank of New York report indicates that roughly 17% of total student loans are more than 90 days past due. This is in addition to the more than 8% of borrowers who became delinquent for the first time during the last quarter, in addition to the payments that continue to be 30 and 60 days past due. Moreover, if you were to consider the fact that less than half of total student loans are actually in repayment mode, you’d realize that in truth about a third of that segment are indeed one or more months past due. To put this point into even sharper focus — recall a similar delinquent-payment run-up to the subprime mortgage fiasco we’re still working to resolve and you’ll understand the cause for alarm.
  • Fewer than five months remain before this past summer’s deal to extend the government’s subsidized student loan rate is set to expire. And yet, we’ve heard nothing about how Congress proposes to address a problem that seems to have been little more than a political contrivance. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 20 million students attending some form of college at this time, with roughly two-thirds of all undergrads depending on student loans in order to continue their education.

Look, it’s not just the economy. Believing that only encourages us to pin our hopes on better times ahead instead of motivating us to take the necessary steps to ensure that they actually come to pass. So let’s begin by focusing on the student loan problem.

The easy money policies adopted by the government and financial services industry have led students and families to over-borrow their way into unmanageable levels of debt. These policies have also made it possible for the schools to over-spend on overhead as well as for projects that distract from the institutions’ core academic missions, which fueled the upward movement in tuition prices.

The debt debacle is an issue that’s national in scope. As such, it deserves an equally expansive response — a national workout plan, if you will — one that extracts concessions from each of the parties that have benefited from the excesses over the years.

[Related Article: 6 Loans You Can Get & How to Use Them Wisely]

Help for the Indebted

To start, I believe the government’s recently implemented Pay as You Earn Repayment plan (PAYER), which calculates payment affordability at 10% of discretionary income and caps the repayment duration at 20 years, should be expanded to include all student loans regardless of:

  • Origination channel and type (i.e., government, private, previously consolidated, etc.)
  • Initial loan draw-down date (i.e., including loans taken out prior to 2007)
  • Borrower type (i.e., students and parents)
  • Payment status (i.e., loans that are current as well as those that are past due)

The PAYER plan should also address the “cancellation of debt”  tax liability that borrowers face when their loan balances are forgiven before they’re fully paid off.

Once the government opens the door for all education loans to be included in the PAYER plan, the private lenders should then be mandated to facilitate their unimpeded transfer into it — in other words, without the assessment of arbitrary fees on the way out.

What Else the Government Can Do

However, shifting to the government — and by extension, to the taxpayers — the totality of a financial headache so many parties were complicit in creating, should not take place without consequence. That’s why it would make sense for the feds to also establish a student loan trust (SLT) that provides for the value of unrecoverable defaults that occur as well as the loan obligations the government ultimately forgives via the PAYER plan.

The SLT would be additionally supported by contributions from the private lenders and schools.

As it pertains to the lenders’ part, it’s worth considering an amount that’s equal to the economic value of the interest rate differential for the loans that move into the government’s program. For example, suppose a student owes $30,000 in private loans that charge an average 10% interest. The monthly payment for that debt would be $396.45 for 10 years. However, if the same loans were rolled into the standard 6.8% government program (the PAYER modification would be determined after the fact), the monthly payment would drop to $345.24, or 13% less. Therefore, the private lender’s contribution to the SLT would be determined by multiplying that 13% discount by the value of the underlying debt.

Think of it this way: the math says that when a student borrows money at 10% for 10 years, it’s as if he or she were borrowing nearly 15% more at 6.8%. This calculation helps to level the playing field. It also encourages more affordable private loan pricing practices going forward.

As for the schools, they too share fault by virtue of tuition prices that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and National Center for Education Statistics, now represent more than 40% of median household income (versus less than half that amount 30 ago), not to mention a graduation rate that hovers at the 55% level, with widely varying results for sub-sector institutions.

That’s why it makes sense for the schools to contribute to SLT’s funding at an amount that’s equal to a percentage of the value of the loans that constitute the college’s unique cohort default rate — the loans that have been defaulted upon by their former students. This would effectively hold schools financially accountable for their academic outcomes.

Bankruptcy Isn’t the Only Answer

As for the borrowers, as long as the government agrees to loosen its PAYER plan eligibility standards and relax its refinancing protocols, and as long as the private lenders are prohibited from interfering with the transfer of these loans into the government’s program, education loan borrowers should then have a reasonable chance of repaying all or most of their debts over time. Consequently, it’s hard to rationalize revising the bankruptcy code to permit the discharge of these loans, because doing so would encourage borrowers to declare bankruptcy instead of rolling their private loans into the government’s less expensive program.

However, should these changes not be enacted, the code should then be modified so that all student loan debt — government and private alike — becomes fully dischargeable in bankruptcy.

[Related Article: 4 Ways to Pay Off Your Student Loans Faster]

What More Schools Need to Do

Earlier, I talked about the measures schools are employing to bridge their budgetary gaps. I also discussed how they’ve strayed from their core academic missions. These days, in addition to delivering educational content, colleges are also in the real estate, food services, sports and entertainment businesses. Consider the vast tracts of land these institutions own and the dormitories, libraries, classrooms, administrative buildings, dining halls and sports facilities they’ve constructed on them.

With all that in mind, here are three questions worth pondering:

  • To what extent is developing additional sources of revenue (such as through commercial-sector partnerships, sponsorships and non-academic real estate development projects) or tapping endowment funds a better way to go than fundamentally attacking cost structures from the ground up?
  • To what extent can higher education as a whole rationalize a system of vast redundancies, where a dozen midrange private colleges in a given state are each supporting their own administrative and technological infrastructures?
  • To what extent should the schools be in all these sideline businesses at a time when the need to develop and deliver higher quality educational content—both online and in classroom settings—conflicts with the economic realities of declining enrollments and increasing demands for financial assistance?

Higher education would become more competitive if in-market academic alliances and intra-sector consolidations were to occur, and the schools would also benefit by divesting their sideline businesses to those who specialize in the field (such as hospitality companies, REITs, and so forth) in favor of generating the investment capital that’s needed to revitalize educational content and upgrade the technology required to deliver it. All these actions would drive down overhead costs and tuition prices in the process.

As for the revenue side of the equation, some schools are experimenting with stackable credentialing. As the authors of a recent McGraw-Hill Research Foundation paper suggest, deconstructing academic majors into clusters of targeted educational content permits consumer-learners with specific interests and limited resources (time and money) to acquire the education they need for the work they do or the careers they aspire to attain. The schools also stand to benefit from this buffet-style approach to learning via a broadening of the revenue base. What’s more, the “stackable” feature of the individual certifications encourages learners to view them as pathways toward formal degrees.

Education is an integral component of the American dream. It represents a way out for the disadvantaged as much as it does a way up for us all. That’s because an educated populace makes for a more prosperous and globally competitive nation. With what’s at stake here, we cannot afford to continue taking such an inadequately incremental approach to solving so extensive a problem.

(Wondering how student loans may be impacting your credit? Check out Credit.com’s truly free Credit Report Card for an easy to understand overview of your credit, along with your credit scores.)

Image: Ryan McVay

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  • http://www.grenningallery.com/ Laura grenning

    Hi Mitchell,

    I went back to my college in Ohio for the 25th reunion and was horrified to find that the outgoing president had spent most of his time building new buildings and a new swim center on campus. What happened to good old learning? The debt was easy to acquire no doubt, but all I could think about was how expensive the school was going to have to be to pay for all this. Denison Univeristy is a great school BEFORE the building boom. WHat it all boils down to is incentives, and the incentives to load up on debt have been there for both the universities and the students. It’s like any other boom, people can’t imagine enrollment going down, or jobs not paying for a $100,000 student loan package…until the bills start coming in. The thing that enrages me is that the bad loans from the subprime mortgage boom are being quietly purchased by our Federal Reserve, away from the bankers who paid themselves handsomely for packaging them up and/or buying it into their fund. Why isn’t the fed buying back some of these students loans from the private banks that are still charging 8% etc, and offering our budding academics access to the new interest rates? They should simply reset theses rates – no fee heavy refinancing – just get the lenders to close the margin from 7% (charging 8% to borrowers while only paying interest of 1%) to depositors – to a more usual 3 to 4%.

    A simple clean cut in interest rates on all outstanding student loans would increase the overall amount being paid because it would restore hope, and signal to teh students that they are as important, or even more important than these financial speculators who actually sunk the ship in the first place.

    • http://www.mitchelldweiss.com Mitchell D. Weiss

      Thank you for your comment, Laura. Obviously, I agree. The problem needs to be comprehensively addressed via an expansion of the government program with offsets courtesy of those who’ve prospered from the excesses in the past–the private lenders, schools with high cohort default rates and also, the government itself. No one escapes blame on this one.

      • dody

        I joined this discussion eight months ago. and eight months later, I still….STILL just like 14 years ago, have had zero progress in trying to figure out a solution to this student loan issue I am forced to remain a part of… lets update a little…. the experts are claiming that the percentage of defaulted student loans is skyrocketing, and are talking in the billions of dollars that is not yet repaid, and seemingly unrecoverable… deadbeats that we all appear to be…. so they would have the world believe if they can stuff the lies down everyones throats. I am screaming, just llike I have since 1999 when I discovered a thing called defaulted student loan, its not a “fault” of anyone that has been forced to allow their social security numbers and name combo to become a part of this terrorist activity that is called the student loan industry. They now require that a new student fill out, online, a thing nicknamed a fafsa, which is a combination application for all financial assistance,, loans, grants, scholorships, etc. all rolled up into one nice neat little application that you type in your name at the end of, and the applicant is told what that financial aid will consist of,,,later on, and to accept any of it they must accept all they are told are a part of it,,.. whether they intended to ask for loans, or only look into possible grants and offers of assistance makes no difference, with inuendos of their somehow ripping off the system, and the colleges if they don’t accept their invented responsibility to share in the debt of it all by accepting their part, called loans, and repay them as told, or be ones labled deadbeats. … personal beliefs of the entire thing being nothing but a sham put into play at long ago by the rare few who financially benefit to the tune of those same billions, makes no difference. it took more effort for me to prove who I was so I could somehow investigate this thing called my student loans, than it does to obtain those loans in the first place. typing your name at the end of this combo applicaton. who knows how many of these applications are going to show up years down the road as “defaulted loans” on doorsteps of dumbfounded victems that probably would not have allowed things to go so far,, if they had even known their names and social security numbers had been used in the first place. How many of these shame on you all claims of unpaid loans do you suppose happen to be that way because of this ever growing in popularity thing called identity theft, as I have had the displeasure of discovering I have been participating in since 1985..although I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing I did until 1999. And, just like all such victems, I have been forced to suffer it alone,. it doesn’t seem like there is anyone else out there that has a similar problem, because the dept of ed, and its numerous but equally confusing offices and contracted to cronies called debt collectors refuse to allow any such information to come into the publics thinking as NORMAL. I have done enough research,, as a knowledgable enough individual to know how to do so, and open minded enough to read between the lines when forced to, and not blink an eye at suggestions of paranoia, or reading too much into things, and needing proof beyond shadows of doubt types of traps…. first came votech classes to get a certificate from a local community college, that was not even a type of thing considered to be “real college student stuff” according to the college, when they were question later. and their report to that set in stone as the gospel truth website nslds.ed.gov.. the official website of the us dept of ed to tell you what you have as debt, whether its true or not. and then,, life goes on after a few classes to get a little better pay, paid for by the company I worked for,, end of college career. and yet,, fifteen years later, I suddenly started getting letters saying they were keeping my fed tax refunds and taking steps to garnish wages type scenarios…. and of course,, go figure,, no amount of trying, for eight more years, provided me with any type of info or assistance other than to discover that the dept of educations policy and only procedure at that time was,,, if its in your name,, its yours, and your only option is to pay it, period.. they had zero options for people. and in 2013, there is still the asinine fact that, even though they do now have some instances they consider worthy to be able to fill out a form for to submit, and pretend they will receive, document, and consider for its alleged claim of use, these forms, which are apparently what I would need to file with them, and have, though I don’t seem to know how to use the us mail appropriately enough, have a stipulation that they only begin January 1, 1986. and if there is an instance of id theft or fraud that gave you a student loan before that date…… nothing.. absolutely nothing,… no procedures, no protocol, not even the documents that would prove a loan at all! they all only have to keep any of their records for seven years, then they can purge all your records… whoever they are… and for all the separate places there are that have sent me various proofs of my guilt, and prove I am somehow lying to everybody, there sure seems to be bits and pieces that are now put together into a giant puzzle that shows a real dark picture of ALL OF THEM being ‘IT’ one theft at a time, and how easy it appears to be to backdate documents and recreate events so each one, one by one, beginning with the college office employees going into the employees of a bank, who cashed in an insurance policy on a defaulted loan to heaf or help or another of the various initials they had, before each one, one by one, including the originating bank who was absorbed by well fargo somewhere in the 90’s, stopped being in existence, along with any chance of getting assistance or information of any kind other than that old real worn out quote of stupidity that is the standard stand by of ALL OF THEM,,, of it being just too old, no records still existing,,, no available assistance,,, defaulted before it was known to even exist, and yet,, also the standard for ALL OF THEM,, is to refuse to provide any type of adequate and accurate information on any of it and refusals to answer even the first basic question even a high school drop out such as myself thought to put out there,, who’s responsibility is it to PROVE TO ME OR THE REST OF THE WORLD, that student loans ever existed in the first place?? and even if there can be provided suddenly a miracle of a non purged one or two pieces of paper that appear to be some sort of signed application for something that doesn’t even have proof of ever being something that existed in the first place,, how about again asking,, WHERE IS THE PROOF that it was ever put into play, way back then, and was turned into actual paid out funds, since their own non existant records keeping appearing, and show not only inaccuracies in the dates of their own documents swearing how much these monies were, and who got what, but have a ten year inaccuracy in the date they claim was the loan dates. but also the again and again proof of common sense basic business, that its all fake, and not possible, and not verifiable, and still no answer to WHO HAS THE BURDEN OF PROOF? if they cannot even show it happened at all, at the birth, except for the various depts. and offices and financiers who cashed in on the insurance policies when not paid off…. I didn’t know that student loans are insured and those policies are so easily cashed in. I was always brainwashed into thinking there was some sort of financial loss for those generous companies and colleges that provided those billions to we the deadbeats of the world. no, not of America, since student loans are available to anyone in the world.. and every time a new company or dept or office gets ahold of this dead horse, they revive it, harass me for about eight to 14 months, steal another of my tax refunds, get me all upset with their terroristic threats and activities, provide me with the records of the last batch who did the same stuff, and make it appear that I have debt I refuse to pay. they cant do that is the stupidest thought I ever had about the whole system of employees of all of it.. its a giant cluster f**** of thieves and EVERYONE OF THEM do it. absolutely. the rest of us are kept in a giant fluff of we the people garbage of various degrees, so worried of how we need to fix something or other constantly, while an elite few who are called employees, are robbing it all into possible real bankruptcy, but of course saved at the last minute, you wait and see, since it would lose their money tree if it all went bust. all kept very alive because the American dream has been redeveloped into one that shows that the successful high school graduate has the job availability for their career choices of mcdonalds, taco johns, or phone solicitor, if they donot get at least a bare minimum of further education which would then qualify them to upgrade to nurses aid, janitorial services, or maybe computer operator at ten bucks an hour. all with the risk that those nurses aid classes for that ten weeks back in the 80’s had a higher price than those outrageously priced books required for the classes and only available at that elite little book store at the college for hundreds of dollars…each, and might become more of an expense than even that god the foot ball coach who is getting 350 thousand per year in salary and perks… because the college sports are being claimed to be the money making draws for the colleges…. for who? the typical student?? whatever… I know that personally, being shown that is is totally accepted by all employees of all of it to totally ignore it, lie to me, scream at me, bully me into stopping the calls and contacts to them, and arrange the impossible of having my phone become disconnected like magic glitches that it seems, everytime one of them puts my social security number, which everyone of them require me to give to them, the strangers that they are, everytime I attempt to do anything about any of it, into their computer and push enter… woops ,, disconnected again… but shouldn’t I obey when told to stop calling them to insist on some sort of resolution, and just pay my defaulted loans and stop being the deadbeat that I prove I am, instead of pissing off the supervisor of the moment of the collection agency who is the latest lottery winner of my name and number,, forcing her to add a five hundred dollar bitch fee the total balance due on the 27 year old defaulted student loan I am too stupid and irresponsible to take responsibility for…… They are so unafraid of it all that they don’t even hint or insinuate such things anymore,. they will come right out and boldly speak loudly when they say you know what, just for refusing to accept our offer to set you up with a very generous offer of payment plans, for as undeserving as you are of receiving such offers from us, I have decided you deserve to have a five hundred dollar bitch fee added to your account………. click………. and they can!! and do!! and the blind being worked to death to pay back their alleged debts to society are just too unaware, too tired, too dazed and confused, and overwhelmed, or just too unwilling to let go of their American fantasy,,yet, to have any belief or real acceptance of what this thing we labled the student debt crisis,, is really all about….. THEY ALL DO IT,… every loan is a potential seed of their next money tree of the moment… to give any real usable and realistic, just like always,, would not be profitable to the employee of the moment cashing in on their little part of the bigger picture… one by one,, drip by drip on the surface of a rock, sooner or later causes permanent damage, as high school graduates have been redeveloped into ones who are only successful at the part of what is called an education that was free… now comes the rest… and the 2nd stupid question I have never had answered…. why would it be claimed that I accepted a loan of 2500 per semester,, for classes that only cost 560 per semester?? why would these responsible, self respecting protecters and guidance leaders for our still children college newbies, still not even 21 yet, but only needed as 18 year olds to agree to add a signature sign away their lives, without comprehending how long that life can be… to people smiling and claiming they can be trusted for best interst and knowledge of what a student needs to be considered successful at the end of their first education in realities that life bites… and so do ALL OF THEM… I wonder how much more of a bitch fee this commentary will end up costing me… I don’t think I have paid too much to have the privilege of STILL being American enough to claim I have THE RIGHT TO COMPLAIN ABOUT A BATCH OF GARBAGE PROCEDURES THAT A BUNCH OF LOWLIFE EMPLOYEES OF A DUMMY COMPANY CALLED US DEPT OF ED, ARE DOING TO THE REST OF US… ONE BY ONE BY ONE…. AND TOO CHICKEN OF PUNK LITTLE PETTY THIEVES TO STOP HIDING BEHIND CLAIMS OF WHAT THE GOVT DOES, OR DOESNT DO,,, OR WHAT DEPT OF ED. WILL OR WILL NOT ALLOW…. THOSE ARE LIFELESS, NON LIVING ENTITIES ALIVE ONLY BY THIER NAMES AND TITLES…. PEOPLE ARE THE ONES GUILTY OF ALL OF THIS NIGHTMARE CALLED, AND BEING RECREATED WITH THE TITLE STUDENT DEBT…. good luck to all you future suckers….. from a former one….. with zero debts,, and lots of terrorists doing bullying and petty thievery to keep me always afraid of all of them…. more than I would be afraid of any stupid airplane crashing into a building I happen to be in…. damn terrorists should at least have foreign accents, you would hope….

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  • D. Kranz

    One thing that would help is if they would stop the capitalization of interest when the loans are deferred or placed in forbearance; as well as when they lower your rate from 9.5% to 6% to not capitalize the remaining 3.5% interest back into the loan. All this is doing is moving us backwards. I don’t see the government capitalizing the interest on the loans they are giving to foreign countries, instead they are waiving the interest and sometimes not even asking for payments on these loans. I understand they loaned many students money for an education, an education that is suppose to help our country in the long run; so why can’t they waive the interest on students or even have it at an affordable rate 1-2% and no capitalization. Even finance companies don’t capitalize. They need to do something fast, as this is as big of a problem as our govenments budget.

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  • Kim

    Maybe if the student loan companies would quit selling off the student loans, like a revolving door. The students would be able to keep up with WHO NOW is holding the paper on their loan and NOT End Up Being in Default. I personally know 6-8 people who have no idea who even owns thier student loans…even if they want to pay.
    Also know that some have paid auto payments ..and then find out the bank sold thier note While Still Taking thier Auto payments…and the New Bank calls saying they are in default… Banks are getting Rich off of this ..Vicious cycle!

  • Elizabeth

    I am one of those who have problems with student loan debt. I quit work to earn an MBA and went on to work on my PhD. When I got back in the work force, I was making about the same money as I had been prior to the higher education. Now, I pay $1K a month for Student Loans and can’t purchase a car or anything else. If the American economy is consumer driven, the Government needs to figure out that some of the downturn is due to under-employement AND student loan debt. I will be paying back student loans until I retire. That is partially my fault and I accept the responsibility. However, I do not work for a public institution and therefore do not qualify for some of the repayment programs. I think the Govenment needs to at least extend that program and possibly put together a program that would allow me to volunteer my time for loan repayment. To be honest, I need help and even though I know there are programs out there that should help me, it is not easy to get information about them. My loans have been consolidated and sold and everything else. I have problems even figuring out who to talk to about them. And when I do talk to someone, they are not interested in helping me. Why should they? I have no leverage… no provision for bankruptcy and they can garnish my wages. It really does not matter to them if I have money to eat.

  • doekna

    I guess its still the same ol same ol solutions and assumptions… if they didn’t have quite so many people stealing from the programs, the rest of us would be much much better off,, as usual…. we are not.

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