The Larger Debate on Federal Credit Programs

Earlier today I criticized a New York Times proposal regarding law school loans. Whatever you think about the proper cost of legal education, the NYT is off-base, because it ignores the role of private finance in our economy.

Education finance policy is difficult because it raises fundamental issues in political economy and public finance generally. It also only makes sense with some historical context.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, an anti-tax coalition operated on the presumption that state support for education had to drop. Financialization plugged the resulting hole in funding: responsibility for paying for school shifted from (relatively well-off) taxpayers to students. By the 1990s, private lenders realized that they could make tremendous profits from such loans–particularly if they could privatize profits, while sticking the government with losses. That arrangement became so scandalous by 2010 that it was curtailed as part of PPACA. The federal government directly offers many loans now.

But the private lenders did not simply give up. Current efforts to “reform” federal student loans are part of their much larger effort to shrink federal credit programs. The basic idea is simple: to force the US government to account for its credit programs as if it could and should charge interest rates (and impose terms) prevailing among private lenders.

It’s a strange move, especially since, as Matt Yglesias states, “costs reported in the budget are generally lower than the costs to the most efficient private financial institutions because the government’s costs of funds are in fact lower.” David Kamin has also questioned this accounting tactic. But if it succeeds, there is little rationale for any federal credit program–it will simply duplicate extant private lenders’ work. That redundancy will lead to further privatization of federal credit programs, raising costs to borrowers and diverting more money to the finance sector. It’s not a great outcome for students–but it is a logical outgrowth of reflexive hostility to the type of state intervention that actually could improve students’ finances while maintaining quality.

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