Private Lenders’ Troubling Influence on Federal Loan Policy

Hundreds of billions of dollars are at stake in the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Like the confirmation of a new Supreme Court justice, it may be delayed into 2017 (or beyond) by partisan wrangling. But as that wrangling happens, Washington insiders are drafting “radical” proposals to change the federal government’s role.

Faculty at all institutions need to examine these proposals closely. The law and public finance issues raised by them are complex. But if we fail to understand them, and to weigh in against the worst proposals, we could witness developments that will fundamentally change (and perhaps end) the university as we know it. Moreover, even if universities find ways to shield themselves from change, some proposals will leave students vulnerable to worse financing terms and lower-quality programs.

In a series of posts over the next few weeks, I’ll be explaining the stakes of the HEA reauthorization. For now, I want to start with a thought experiment on how education finance may change, based on recent activities of large banks and digital lending services I’ve studied. What would be ideal, in terms of higher education finance, for them?

Financiers consider government a pesky and unfair competitor. While federal loans offer options to delay payments (like deferment and forbearance), and discharge upon a borrower’s death or permanent disability (with certain limitations), private loans may not offer any of these options. Private lenders often aim to charge subprime borrowers more than prime borrowers; federal loans offer generally uniform interest rates (though grad students pay more than undergrads, and Perkins loans are cheaper than average). Alternatively, private lenders may charge borrowers from wealthy families (or attending wealthy institutions) less. Rates might even fluctuate on the basis of grades: just as some students now lose their scholarships when they fail to maintain a certain GPA, they may face a credit hit for poor performance.*

Now in conventional finance theory, that’s a good thing: the “pricier” loan sends a signal warning students that their course may not be as good an idea as they first thought. But the commitment to get a degree is not really analogous to an ordinary consumer decision. A simple Hayekian model of “market as information processor” works well in a supermarket: if bananas suddenly cost far more than apples, that signal will probably move a significant number of customers to substitute the latter for the former. But education does not work like that. College degrees (and in many areas further education) are necessary to get certain jobs. The situation is not as dire as health care, the best example of how the critical distinction between “needs” and “wants” upends traditional economic analysis. But it is still a much, much “stickier” situation than the average consumer purchase. Nor can most students simply “go to a cheaper school,” without losing social networks, enduring high transition costs, and sacrificing program quality.

For financiers, a sliding scale of interest rates makes perfect sense as “calculative risk management.” But we all know how easily it can reinforce inequality. A rational lender would charge much lower interest rates than average to a student from a wealthy family, attending Harvard. The lender would charge far more to a poorer student going to Bunker Hill Community College. “Risk-based pricing” is a recipe for segmenting markets, extracting more from the bottom and less from the top. The same logic promoted the tranching of mortgage-backed securities, restructuring housing finance to meet investor demands. Some investors wanted income streams from the safest borrowers only–they bought the AAA tranches. Others took more risk, in exchange for more reward. Few considered how the lives of the borrowers could be wrecked if the “bets” went sour.

Now you might ask: What’s the difference between those predictable disasters, and those arising out of defaults of federal loans? They’re very difficult to discharge in bankruptcy. But federal loans have income-based repayment options. For loans made after 2007, lenders in distress can opt into a payment plan keyed to their income level, which eventually forgives the debt. Private loans don’t offer IBR.

But IBR is not that great a deal, you may counterAnd in many cases, you’re right, it isn’t! Interest can accumulate for 20 or 25 years. Then, when the debt is finally forgiven, the forgiven amount could be treated as income which must be taxed. There is no IBR for the tax payment. Moreover, the impact of growing debt (even it is eventually to be forgiven) on future opportunities is, at present, largely unknown. Many consumer scores may factor it in, without even giving the scored individual notice that they are doing so.

So why keep up the federal role in higher ed finance? Because one key reason federal loans are so bad now is because private lenders have had such a powerful role in lobbying, staffing the key loan-disbursing agency (Department of Education), and supporting (indirectly or directly) think tank or analyst “research” on higher ed finance. When government is your competitor, you use the regulatory process to make the government’s “product” as bad as possible, to make your own look better by comparison. And the more of the market private lenders take, the more money they’ll have to advocate for higher rates and worse terms for federal loans–or getting rid of them altogether.

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*The CFPB has warned lenders that using institutional cohort default rates to price loans could violate fair lending laws, and that may have scared some big players away from doing too much risk based pricing. However, with the rise of so many fringe and alternative lenders, and the opacity of algorithmic determinations of creditworthiness, the risk of disparate impact is still present.

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