Federal payment plans adjust monthly payments based on income, family size, and the extension of repayment periods. Debt qualifies for forgiveness after 10, 20 or 25 years of repayment. About 30 percent of all borrowers with federal loans are in such a program, and more borrowers could benefit from participating in one.
But reimbursement programs have a poor track record. Not long ago, the claims of the entire 98 percent of people who applied for debt forgiveness were denied. A March report by the Government Accountability Office found that millions of dollars in student debt could already have been forgiven if the programs were properly managed. Richard Cordray, chief operating officer of Federal Student Aid, an agency of the Department of Education, called the failure “truly indefensible.”
The Department of Education is reforming these programs by retroactively giving eligible borrowers more credit for time they spend in public service and hoarding through the paperwork backlog, but it can do more. Additional changes to income-based repayment programs — such as reducing interest payments, lowering eligibility criteria, and forgiving tax-deductible student loan debt — could have significant effects over time, according to a report from the Pew Center. Congress and the Department of Education should consider such changes as part of a more sustainable solution to the debt problem.
Lawmakers should also consider making it easier to pay off student loans through bankruptcy, a measure of relief available for credit card debt and mortgages. Changes to the bankruptcy law in 2005 also reduced access to this protection.
The Ministry of Education has begun a long-awaited crackdown on predatory schools, another important source of student debt default. The Obama administration has tightened rules around for-profit schools, but the Trump administration’s Department of Education, headed by Betsy DeVos, has loosened those rules and let its reimbursement and tolerance programs fade. Last month, the department cashed $238 million in debt owed to 28,000 people who attended Marinello Beauty Schools, which closed in 2016. The department’s investigation found the school had engaged in “widespread misconduct.”
Since 2021, the Biden administration has approved disbursement of more than $18.5 billion in loans to more than 750,000 borrowers, including $6.8 billion to 113,000 people in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and $8.5 billion to more than 400,000 borrowers with Complete and permanent disabilities. The administration is also pushing to double the Pell Grant cap and restore a rule that schools hold schools accountable for the profitable employment of their graduates — a measure aimed at for-profit colleges.
These moves are all good, addressing the student debt crisis with compassionate and fair policies.