The Big Financial Problem With Income-Based Repayment

For the last decade or so this country has seen some important changes to student loan policy. In earlier times students simply had to pay monthly fees based on their total loans, to multiple companies with very limited opportunities for relief if financial problems came up. Today it can be a little easier for those who have student loan debt.

Starting in the Bush administration, and escalating when Barack Obama became president, changing regulations have allowed for some measure of relief. Debtors can consolidate their loans and take advantage of policies allowing people to make payments as a portion of their income. Many can also have their loans forgiven after 20 years of regular payments. It’s complicated, but permissive policies do exist.

How much has this changed behavior, however? New data released by Navient, the loan servicer formerly part student loan giant Sallie Mae, indicates that the changes are pretty important. According to this article at Bloomberg Business:

That’s been making their debt more affordable each month but also longer-lasting (since the balances aren’t getting paid down as much or at all and could even increase—although the balances can eventually be forgiven, in some cases after 20 years). The repayment slowdown is filtering into the bond market, where credit graders are now considering downgrades on almost $40 billion of securities tied to government-backed loans because the bonds might not pay off by their promised maturities.

That’s because if you graduate from college with $70,000 worth of loans, get a job that pays only $25,000 a year, and sign up for income-based repayment, you’re never going to pay the federal government $70,000 in 20 years, even if you get standard annual raises.

How serious a problem is this? How much are students paying back? Bloomberg:

The average new payment by student-loan borrowers in the Navient bonds is about 20 percent of the amount scheduled under full repayment, according to the Deutsche Bank analysts.

Now, many people taking of these policies are relatively recent graduates, and as their income increased they will be making payments more in line with full repayment. But if tuition continues to increase, and incomes continue to stay stagnant (more low income people with high debt will enter the system; high-income people with low debt don’t have a good reason to sign-up for income-based repayment) this could become a huge problem for the student loan market. That’s why they’re considering a credit downgrade on the securities tied to student loans.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer