This editorial first appeared in The Dallas Morning News. Guest editorials don’t necessarily reflect the Denton Record-Chronicle’s opinions.
We’ll give Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos something she doesn’t get very often — praise for an innovative idea. Even as Washington descends further into a hyperpartisan soup, this past week she waded in with an idea that is long overdue and could end up leading tens of millions of future college students to afford higher education.
Her idea can best be expressed in this question: Should the responsibility of offering federal student loans be removed from the Department of Education? She raised the possibility of shifting a large chunk of the student loan portfolio to private lenders or simply moving the responsibility to another part of the federal government, likely a new standalone department or, as has been raised as a possibility in the past, the Department of the Treasury where there is an expertise on finance.
It’s not often that a high-ranking federal official calls for shrinking his or her portfolio, so that alone should compel more people to take this idea seriously. But there is actually a more compelling reason to rethink federal loans. In short, the federal student loan portfolio is a mess. If Uncle Sam were a private bank, we’d likely see a pitchfork army camped out in front of its doors.
Consider these facts. Earlier this year, a Pew Research report took a look at student loans through the lens of an organization that had detailed data on 400,000 student borrowers in Texas who were at least five years or more into repayment. In the analysis, these borrowers were split into three categories: 1) Those who had defaulted on their loans; 2) Those who owed more than their original balance; and 3) Those who owed less than their original balance.
Keeping in mind each of these categories included only those who had entered repayment at least five years earlier, the numbers are striking. Approximately, a quarter of all of these students had defaulted — 89% of those who defaulted did so within two years. Meanwhile, 21% of these borrowers owed more than their original balance five or more years into repayment. And here, we’re not surprised. When borrowers defer payment, interest keeps piling up. That left about half who actually managed to pay down part of their original debt, but only 22% of borrowers never missed or paused payments.
These are Texas numbers, of course. But Texas isn’t exactly a standout for the bad performing portion of the federal loan portfolio. It’s just a chunk of the portfolio that we have good data on. Or think of it this way: There’s nearly 50 million student loan borrowers nationally, and about 20% of them have defaulted in some capacity, often at the expense of taxpayers.
About a decade ago the feds largely took over the student loan market. The devil is in the details, of course. But it is past time that we realize that this experiment in federalizing this loan market is failing us taxpayers and failing students. We’re owed a better system. It’s past time to raise the bar on how we finance higher education.