Obama's Student-Loan Order Saves the Average Grad Less Than $10 a Month

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The monthly impact of the president's new effort for most Americans paying off college debt will be between $4 and $8

615 students studying Sterling College flickr.jpg

This post has been corrected (see note below).

Of the many long-term problems the U.S. economy faces, student loans are a big one. Education costs are rising very quickly and incomes aren't. As a result, students will have to borrow more and more money to obtain university degrees and will have a tougher time paying their loans. President Obama seeks to respond to this question with an executive order in the next part of his "We Can't Wait" unilateral stimulus effort. While the president's heart may be in the right place, his effort isn't like to have much impact.

The Problem: Student Loans' Crazy Growth

The cost of college is growing rapidly. That wouldn't be a problem if incomes were growing as quickly as tuition and fees. They aren't. In order to cope with the growing expense of college, more students are relying on bigger loans. The chart below demonstrates the problem pretty clearly:

student loans v disp inc 2011-q2.png

You can see that student loans have grown by 511% since 1999. Meanwhile, disposable income has grown by just 73%. As this chart also shows, most outstanding student loan debt (82%!) was accrued by students over just the past decade.

Obama's Executive Orders

The president seeks to make the situation a little bit easier for some of those graduates. He will create an executive order that has three components.

  • He will clear the way for borrowers with direct government loans and government-backed private loans to consolidate their balances. The White House estimates that this will cut the effective interest rate on student loans by up to 0.5%.
  • He will limit the amount of student loan payments to 10% of a graduate's income. (Currently, the limit is 15%.)
  • He will allow debt still outstanding after 20 years to be forgiven. (Currently, forgiveness occurs after 25 years.)

Those last two orders are really just the president moving up the timeline of existing legislation. Both changes are set to go into effect in 2014, but the president will order that they go into effect as of 2012.

The Impact

Let's consider the impact of each of these orders.

Consolidation

The first would clearly be the most significant, because it is aimed at helping more student loan borrowers. How much would an interest rate reduction of up to 0.5% affect payments?

For the average borrower, the impact would be small. In 2011, Bachelor's degree recipients graduating with debt had an average balance of $27,204, according to an analysis done by finaid.org, based on Department of Education data. That average has ballooned from just $17,646 over the past decade.

Using these values as the high and low bounds of average student debt over the last ten years, the monthly savings for the average student loan borrower would be between $4.50 and $7.75 per month. Clearly, this isn't going to save the economy. While borrowers with bigger balances would save more, this is the average. And even someone with $100,000 in loans would only cut their monthly payments by $28.50.

Payment Limits

As mentioned, the government already has a program for borrowers to reduce their student loan payments to a ceiling of 15% of their income. At this time, just 450,000 borrowers are participating. How many others would benefit from the 10% cap?*

Originally, I did a calculation to estimate whether the average student loan borrower could benefit from this program. Since then, I have learned that this calculation assumed a much broader population of borrowers than will actually be eligible for the program. The White House estimate is 1.6 million borrowers could participate. Any borrower who graduated in 2011 or earlier will not be eligible, so its effect will be felt strictly by those in school now or in the future. For a very lengthy explanation of this aspect of the student loan plan, see this post, written after the criteria was clarified.

Loan Forgiveness

Of all these parts of Obama's executive order, the loan forgiveness aspect will have the least impact. By moving the timeline from 25 to 20 years, it could be significant in the long run -- but it won't be felt for decades. Remember, 82% of the current student loan debt outstanding was accrued in just the past decade. So it will be at least another 10 years before any of those borrowers have hit the 20-year mark in their student loan payments.

Can an Executive Order Really Do This?

Some opponents of excessive executive power may question whether an executive order can really even accomplish these ends. The president is ordering a policy change for loan consolidation and changing the implementation date for previously passed legislation. Either of these actions could make for a really interesting court challenge, as both appear to stretch the limits of what an executive order was designed to do -- shouldn't Congress order such changes?

In practice, however, the orders will probably go through without challenge. First, it isn't clear that anyone who has standing to bring such a case to court would do so. The first measures may cost some private lenders some interest revenue, but they need to keep a conciliatory relationship with the government. The latter two measures would cost taxpayers. And even if such a challenge was brought, it could take the court a year or two to provide a final verdict. By then, unless a judge grants a temporary injunction, consolidation would already have occurred for most interested borrowers and the legislation's stated implementation date would already be past for the latter two aspects of Obama's effort.


By calling for these measures, President Obama seeks to respond directly to young Americans stressed about their student loans. Indeed, one of the vague objectives of the Occupy Wall Street movement is for student debt forgiveness. But from a practical standpoint, these executive orders won't have much of an impact on the economy. To take on the student debt problem more aggressively, the president would need some actual legislation that would shake the fundamental framework of the student loan system.

---
Note on the correction: The "Payment Limits" section of this post was updated when the criteria for qualifying for the 10% payment cap was better understood. I also wrote this new post to provide further clarification.

Image Credit: Sterling College/flickr

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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