How Would Tying Student Loans to Repayment Rates Affect Higher Education?

As the U.S. Department of Education considers linking colleges’ and universities’ eligibility for federal student financial aid to the school’s student loan repayment rate, some analysts are looking at just how large the student loan default problem is and what might happen if new college loan repayment rules take effect in 2012 as expected.

Defaults on college loans can be measured in a number of ways, but one of the most common measures of default is the official cohort default rate, defined by the Department of Education as the percentage of a school’s student loan borrowers who enter repayment on certain federal education loans “during a particular federal fiscal year, Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, and default or meet other specified conditions prior to the end of the next fiscal year.”

In other words, the cohort default rate is the percentage of borrowers who enter repayment on their federal loans and then either stop making payments on their loan debt or never make payments at all during the 12-24 months after entering repayment.

Student Loan Default Rates vs. Repayment Rates

Government analysts now want to look more closely not at schools’ default rates on federal college loans but at schools’ repayment rates on those loans.

Consumer and student advocates have long argued that the cohort default rate, as currently measured, severely underrepresents the proportion of a schools’ students who are struggling with college loan debt by looking at only an initial 24-month period. The two-year snapshot, these critics maintain, misses a large swath of students who are able to muddle through making their payments for the first couple years but then begin defaulting in the third and fourth years of their repayment periods in accelerated numbers.

The default rate also fails to take into account those students who aren’t able to make payments on their college loans but who aren’t considered to be technically in default because they’ve arranged for a student loan debt management plan that permits them to put off making payments on their federal college loans.

In proposed rules that would regulate a school’s eligibility for federal student aid, the Department of Education would consider a school’s college loan repayment rate and not simply its default rate, as current regulations do.

By expanding its institutional financial aid eligibility rules to include student loan repayment rates, the Education Department would be looking at how many students simply aren’t repaying their student loans — not only counting borrowers who have defaulted, but including those borrowers who are in a legitimate deferred repayment plan or approved forbearance period that allows them to temporarily forgo making their federal student loan payments.

The Student Loan Debt Problem, as Measured by Repayment Rates

Earlier this year, the Department of Education reported that the national cohort default rate was 7 percent for the 2008 fiscal year, the last year for which repayment data are available.

Looking at repayment rates, on the other hand, while also expanding the time span over which student loan repayment is measured, yields a far larger non-payment rate among college loan borrowers and paints a truer picture of the size of the inability-to-repay problem among student loan borrowers.

The Department of Education estimates that in 2009, among alumni of public universities who carried federal student loan debt, only 54 percent of those who had graduated or left school within the last four years were in repayment on their federal student loans — a far cry from the 93-percent national non-default rate of 2008.

The four-year repayment rate was marginally higher for students at private nonprofit universities, at 56 percent. Perhaps predictably, the repayment rate among alumni of private for profit colleges was substantially lower — just 36 percent over four years.

These figures come from a new repayment database that the Department of Education will use to track government-issued loans, from the time they’re issued until the time they’re paid off. The database can also track what happens in between.

By looking more carefully at each loan’s entire lifespan, the Education Department hopes the database will help identify the point at which borrowers first begin to show signs of trouble repaying their federal college loans.

Schools’ Student Loan Problems Could Mean Loss of All Financial Aid

As the government’s proposed financial aid rules are currently worded, the new rules would allow the Department of Education to impose financial aid restrictions on schools whose overall student loan repayment rate falls below 45 percent.

Schools that have a repayment rate of lower than 35 percent would face the loss of federal student aid altogether.

Using the Education Department’s 2009 data, more than half of the higher education institutions in the United States would face some type of federal loan sanctions if the proposed financial aid rules were in effect today, and 36 percent of post-secondary institutions would be barred from offering federal student aid for a period of at least two years.

However, the proposed new Department of Education rules will also allow schools to report student loan repayment rates separately by program. By segmenting out repayment rates by program, institutions could avoid school-wide federal financial aid sanctions, leaving intact federal student aid for academic programs whose repayment rates are within the established guidelines, while still receiving sanctions for programs whose graduates consistently fail to make payments on their federal college loans.

Credit Unions Challenge Big Banks for Private Student Loans

Big banks that offer private-label college loans are facing new competition from credit unions that are looking to issue their own private student loans.

Credit unions, in increasing numbers, are developing partnerships with private loan companies like Sallie Mae and Credit Union Student Choice to deliver private loan products to credit union members. In one such agreement, Southeast Corporate Federal Credit Union, which itself has more than 400 member credit unions, will offer private student loans through Sallie Mae.

Private loans, non-federal education loans issued by banks and private lenders, are designed to assist students who have exhausted their federal loan options. Private loans can be used to cover up to 100 percent of a student’s approved educational expenses.

Credit Unions Offering Flexibility in Student Loan Programs

Some credit union private loan programs are being structured to appeal to families with more than one student in college by enabling parents to make multiple withdrawals on a single line of credit worth as much as $75,000. In addition, credit union-backed student loans are eliminating loan origination fees and offer both in-school loan repayment and deferred, post-graduation repayment plans.

In-school repayment options enable students to reduce the overall amount of interest their private loan accrues before they graduate. According to Sallie Mae, students who begin college loan repayments while still in school can reduce their student loan debt by 30 to 50 percent over traditional college loan payment plans, which defer repayment until after a student has graduated or left school.

Investors Looking to Private Student Loans’ Long-Term Growth

The prospects for private loan companies and college loan securitization are improving marginally. The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) recently sold a bond worth nearly $1.2 billion that was backed by student loans, after previously relying on commercial and residential mortgages to secure its bond sales.

Credit rating agencies are less sure that private student loan companies represent a good risk; however, many analysts remain optimistic about the long-term investment potential of private loans.

Fueling investor confidence in the longer-term prospect of the private student loan market is the growing demand for student financial aid as record numbers of students are entering college each year.

Federal Budget Cuts May Pave the Way for More Private Student Loans

Indeed, private loans may gain market share in a more immediate future than analysts had been predicting.

On Capitol Hill, the U.S. Senate is currently struggling to pass a continuation of its earlier spending authorization to fund the Department of Education’s federal Pell Grant program, which awards government-issued college grants to financially needy and lower-income students. The current authorization expires December 18.

If the Senate fails to reauthorize the funding proposal at its current level, students who are eligible for a Pell Grant may find their Pell Grant award reduced or eliminated. With less Pell Grant aid available to them, many of these students would then need to take out more money in student loans in order to pay for college and complete their degree.

Congress is already considering elimination of the Pell Grant program altogether, as recommended by President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

The bipartisan panel, which recently forwarded its final report to Congress, recommended that the federal government reduce federal education grants based on a student’s pre-college family income in favor of more government-issued college loans, which would need to be paid back, replenishing the government’s coffers, and that would be more attuned to a borrower’s post-graduation earning potential.

However, spending appropriations for an expanded federal loan program may face stiff opposition in the Republican-led House of Representatives.