“Forgiveness Isn’t Divine When It Comes to Student Debt” is the headline on a must-read piece in this morning’s Wall Street Journal by Beth Akers, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of “Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt.”
Of course, there are many, quite a few candidates for the presidency, who would like to forgive the student loans. The taxpayer rather than those who took out the loans would pay under this system.
Akers suggest an alternative: targeting those who struggle most to repay loans and providing relief.
These struggling borrowers may not be who you think they are.
Those with the biggest debts are high earners. They are benefitting most from their educations and have the wherewithall to pay their loans, Akers maintains.
The target group is those with smaller debts. They may not have finished college. Akers identifies this group and puts forward one possible solution:
Those who struggle the most to make payments tend to have only a few thousand dollars in debt. Delinquency and default are most frequent among borrowers with less than $5,000 in debt, because many of them didn’t finish college. An effective debt-relief program would focus on aiding this class of loan recipients.
A first step would be to give every student borrower a $5,000 refundable tax credit. This would be enough to wipe away the debt of the majority of those who are really struggling. It would also help borrowers with larger amounts of debt shorten their repayment terms or reduce their monthly installments. This relief would add to current provisions that allow debtors to reduce their payments when their income is low.
We always hear from politicians who want to expand Pell grants. Bad idea, says Akers:
Another positive step would be to replace the Pell Grant program, which gives a small amount of aid to lower-income students. In its place, lawmakers should promote flexibility with a new system of federal college savings accounts, which would let students choose when and how to spend the funds. A huge share of beginning college students don’t know whether or when they’ll complete their degrees. Swapping grants for a savings account would allow them to cover most or all of their first year of study and walk away debt-free if they don’t continue. This would likely increase federal spending, but would reduce the cost associated with reliance on repayment plans that ultimately cost taxpayers. Going to college would become a much less risky proposition.
This hit home with me. I know a very bright woman who lives in a homeless shelter. She owes several thousand dollars on a small Pell grant loan. I can imagine the emotional burden. I also imagine the debt hinders her getting on her feet again.
I must say I am not sold on Akers’ final suggestion (we skipped number three, which is another reason you should read the entire article):
The final, boldest step would be to replace the myriad federal student-loan options with a single loan that recipients would repay through income withholding. Much of the student-debt problem is owing to avoidable errors by debtors, like unnecessary delinquency or setting monthly payment rates either too high or too low.
A system based on income withholding would allow repayments to be set to a reasonable percentage of an person’s income, and waived automatically during low-earning months. Students would agree to pay a set fraction of their income over a fixed period. In exchange for the increased reliability of automatic payments, the government could eliminate compounding interest, which piles on difficulty for the worst-off debtors.
To me, this looks like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The challenge isn’t to come up with new ways of paying off massive college debt. It is reducing the cost of college. A start on this might not be as hard as we think.