A growing number of student loan borrowers — nearly one in three — aren’t making headway in paying down their loans five years after leaving school.
That’s nearly double the rate a decade ago, according to a new report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
One of the most fascinating things about this report was that many people who aren’t making headway on their loans are not in default — they’re making payments every month.
That’s particularly true of borrowers with big loan balances. The CFPB found that among borrowers with $50,000 or more in debt, 64% of those who weren’t making headway on their loan balance after five years of payments were in “good standing” on their loans.
In other words, these borrowers are making their monthly payments, but the payments aren’t big enough to put a dent in their principal.
Many of these borrowers are enrolled in income-driven repayment (IDR) plans that let them pay just 10 or 15% of their discretionary income each month. If those payments aren’t enough to pay off their loans after 10, 20 or 25 years, the remaining balance may be forgiven.
If you look at the Department of Education’s numbers, 6.5 million Americans are paying back $333 billion in IDR plans, and another 2 million borrowers have $90 billion in loans enrolled in extended repayment plans.
Many of those borrowers will not qualify for loan forgiveness, and could end up paying thousands of dollars in additional interest because they’re stretching their payments out over a longer period of time.
Cost and fairness of providing student loan forgiveness
For those who do qualify for loan forgiveness, the cost to taxpayers could be staggering. There is a major policy debate brewing, and changes to these programs are probably inevitable.
Policy analysts have made some compelling arguments about the fairness of the way these programs are currently structured. Researchers have characterized IDR programs and loan forgiveness as disproportionately benefiting doctors, lawyers, and other borrowers with graduate and professional degrees who rack up six-figure student loan debt.
An IDR plan put forward by the Trump administration would provide loan forgiveness to most borrowers after 15 years, less than the 20 or 25 years it takes for most borrowers today.
But anyone with graduate school debt would not qualify until they’d made 30 years of payments. This plan would be the only choice for new borrowers taking out loans after July 1, 2018.
The Trump administration also proposes closing the door on Public Service Loan Forgiveness for new borrowers. That program allows borrowers who choose careers in government or with non-profits to qualify for loan forgiveness after 10 years of payments.
Together, these changes to IDR programs and Public Service Loan Forgiveness would save $104 billion over the next decade, according to estimates by the White House Office of Management and Budget. Those “savings” would, of course, come out of the pockets of those paying back student loan debt, and Congress would have to go along.