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In my last post I discussed the difficulty faced by potential challengers to President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program in establishing legal standing in court. I also mentioned an estimate of the cost of the plan to taxpayers of around $600 billion over ten years. That was from the Penn-Wharton Budget Model, but now the model’s estimate ranges to more than $1 trillion! The difference is a reassessment of the changes to increasingly popular income-driven repayment (IDR) plans and uncertainty around behavioral assumptions like plan uptake over the ten-year budget window. The changes to IDRs are separate from the $10,000 – $20,000 short-term loan forgiveness component of Biden’s plan, and they are a perfect basis for a legal scam on taxpayers.

IDRs are not new. Under these plans, a borrower pays 10% of their income toward the outstanding balance of their student loans for a period of 10 to 20 years, depending on the plan, after which any remaining balance is forgiven. This may or may not make sense for borrowers with high student loan payments relative to income. In fact, there are some who warn that IDRs are a ripoff. However, only income above 150% of the poverty line is subject to IDR payments. For some students borrowing heavily, IDRs can make tuition hikes irrelevant beyond a certain loan balance: just borrow it! Living expenses can be borrowed as well! These plans almost completely eliminate price sensitivity among consumers of college educations, and it may make sense for certain students to borrow as much as possible. It’s also a prescription for escalating tuition.

Law graduates who work in the public sector have long received favorable treatment via IDRs: they pay 10% of their discretionary income for only 10 years. The so-called Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program is leveraged by law schools, which offer deals for students called Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAP). For an explanation, I’ll defer to Matt Bruenig and his interesting post on the topic (with hat tip to Alex Tabarrok):

The LRAP schemes work as follows:

  1. The school increases their tuition.
  2. The student takes out federal loans to cover the tuition increase.
  3. The school squirrels away the debt-financed tuition increase into an LRAP fund.
  4. The school disburses money from the LRAP fund to cover PSLF repayments.

Through this roundabout process, the law schools effectively use student debt to pay off student debt and make their schools free or nearly free, at least for these particular students.

The school knows the student’s debt payments are limited by income. Tuition hikes can be paid with additional loans, and the LRAPs future obligations are limited by the student’s income after graduation. Not only is the tuition hike “free” to the student, but the school might be able to pocket a share of the new loan and invest the whole nut for returns in the interim. That’s the gist of Tabarrok’s simple example. Needless to say, IDRs and PSLF create some very bad incentives! Farewell to cost control!

Biden’s plan extends IDRs in ways that make them far more attractive to students, including undergraduates. Here are the changes, again from Bruenig:

The IDR changes are four-fold:

  1. Increase the amount of income not subject to IDR from 150 percent of the federal poverty line to 225 percent of the federal poverty line.
  2. Eliminate any accrual of interest on IDR-enrolled loans.
  3. For undergraduate debt, reduce the IDR rate from 10 percent of income beyond the threshold in (1) to 5 percent of income beyond the threshold in (1).
  4. For IDR-enrolled debts with original loan balances below $12,000, reduce the repayment period from 20 years to 10 years.”

Smaller payments and zero interest! This is what led to Penn-Wharton’s revision in the high-side cost estimates of Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan:

“‘Depending on future details of the actual IDR program and concomitant behavioral changes, the IDR program could add another $450 billion or more,’ the analysis found. ‘Thereby raising total plan costs to over $1 trillion.’”

The incentives are for schools to offer LRAPs more broadly, and to abuse them. Rent-seeking vendors have lined up to design and manage these programs. Students and even parents are encouraged to borrow up to the maximum limits, which conceivably allows the loan proceeds to be used outside of the ostensible educational purpose of the loan, potentially for investment gains. See Tabarrok’s post for some links to creative schemes to which part of the loan proceeds might be put by borrowers.

This is a huge scam! It’s hard to square the Administration’s action with any effort to apply economic logic to program design. But that’s not really the point of the student loan forgiveness program. Instead, it’s designed to warm the hearts of Biden’s political base among students and young college graduates. And it will further enrich the heavily endowed universities that can be counted upon to inculcate students with leftist dogma. Apparently, the rest of us, who lack standing to formally challenge these schemes, can just suck it.