Democrats’ policy proposals have sparked a vital and overdue debate on our system to pay for post-secondary education, and how that system burdens and redistributes income. The existing system combines a small share of taxpayer funding (via the Pell Grant) with a large share from the student loan tax. The student loan tax requires the students themselves to pay a percentage of their income for 20 to 25 years, collected not by the IRS but by private contractors for the US Education Department. The Clinton and Obama administrations converted a clunky loan system involving banks and state guarantee agencies into a direct federal “loan” program. The federal government issues funds to colleges and universities, and then outsources to collection contractors to tax the earnings of college grads and noncompleters. Although not all students participate in income-dependent repayment, greater numbers are expected to do so if nothing changes. Not only are student loans different, they are looking less and less like loans at all.
The current system is a tax on future earnings, rather than a true loan program, for several reasons. First, the income-dependent payment programs tie “borrower” payments to their disposable income, and cancel debt at the end of 20 or 25 years. Second, borrowers who are declared in default end up having wages garnished at a fixed percentage of income, as well as tax refunds intercepted, both of which are essentially taxes on earned income (or cancellation of earned income tax credits.) Third, a few (and so far badly administered) loan forgiveness programs allow students to stop repayment after 10 years if they remain in low-paying and socially valued jobs.
When we talk about canceling student loan debt, we are really just talking about how much of college students’ future earnings we will tax. As I have noted previously, some, especially graduate degree holders, repay far more than the cost of their own education, because of above-cost interest rates. Others benefiting from various “forgiveness” programs repay less, at least on a present-value basis.
The problem with costing out a one-time loan cancelation program is that each year a new cohort of students is assigned nearly $100 billion in new federal loans to repay. The combined federal payments under the major loan and grant programs (DL, Perkins and Pell) total about $125 billion annually. The issue going forward is whether to tax individuals and corporations in the present year, or the students in future years, and in what combination. There is also the problem of the disappearing role of states in funding public higher education, a topic I will write about separately.
This is why the policy choices are not binary (full debt cancellation and free college, i.e. 100% taxpayer financing, versus the status quo.) A notable benefit of our expanded policy debate is some real attention to the distributive consequences of major changes in higher education funding. We could, for example, offer new and less onerous income-dependent repayment, taxing a lower percentage of earnings, setting a higher exemption than the poverty level, or shortening the 20-year repayment period. We could, as some have proposed, reduce student repayment even further for borrowers engaged in public service or national service, although as we have seen, defining eligibility categories creates big process costs. We can, and should, abolish “default” and re-evaluate payment obligations for borrowers who did not complete their college education. We could examine the pros and cons of IRS or private contractor collection. The value of elements of our existing system is the ability to apply income progressivity as measured both by students’ pre-college family income as well as their post-graduation income to allocate the burden of their college costs.