Loan Issues Come Due
Congress moves on reforms, but there's more work to do
In response to scandals rocking the student loan industry, the House has quickly passed reform legislation to require more disclosure from lenders as well as university codes of conduct, and Senate action is expected. But the larger issues of rising college costs and students' increasing dependence on private loans have, for the moment at least, taken a back seat.
Yet that doesn't mean they've gone away. College costs have risen far faster than inflation and also outpaced the growth of grant aid and federal loans. Pell grants, for example, which provide money to low-income students, covered nearly 60 percent of the cost of attending a public four-year school in 1986, but by 2005, their value had dropped to 33 percent of the cost, according to the College Board. As a result, more students must turn to costly private loans to finance their education or not go at all.
The cost of information technology, the increasing salaries of tenured professors, and even federal loans themselves have all been blamed for college tuition hikes. On the last point, an analysis by the Cato Institute suggests that when aid is provided by the federal government, states and universities reduce their own efforts to make college affordable.
No go. Whatever the causes, the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, an independent committee created by Congress, estimates that 400,000 students who are qualified to attend a four-year college don't do so each year because of financial restrictions. The committee estimates that roughly 40 percent of this group does not attend college at all, which significantly limits future earnings.
Many students who do go to college face daunting piles of debt. The College Board estimates that the median debt level of bachelor's degree recipients was $19,300 in the 2003-04 school year.
As the recently passed House bill, the Student Loan Sunshine Act, heads to the Senate, lawmakers continue to explore more fundamental changes in the loan industry. Sen. Ted Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is sponsoring legislation that would halve interest rates on subsidized undergraduate loans from 6.8 percent to 3.4 percent, boost the maximum Pell grant award to $5,100, and forgive the student loans of public-sector employees after 10 years. He also wants the government to forgive loans more than 25 years old and cap loan repayment at 15 percent of monthly discretionary income. A Kennedy spokeswoman said those changes would be paid for by eliminating subsidies currently given to banks.
In his fiscal 2008 budget, President Bush proposed increasing the maximum Pell grant award to $5,400 by 2012 from $4,050 today, a change he would pay for with cuts in other loan programs.
Even though the scandals are dominating most of the current discussions on Capitol Hill, some education experts laud the fact that student loans are getting any attention at all. Stephen Burd, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, says, "This is the first time everyone is dealing with the reality of the fact that private loans have become essential financing for undergraduates."
This story appears in the May 28, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.