A largely overlooked report released in February by the Government Accountability Office suggests that the Obama administration's policies have exacerbated student debt, which equals nearly a quarter of annual federal borrowing. With only 37% of borrowers actually paying down their loans, the federal student-loan program more closely resembles the payday-lending industry than a benevolent source of funds for college.


In 2010, the Obama administration dispensed with the private intermediaries that had administered federal loans since the 1960s. It put in their place Direct Lending, a program administered by the Education Department. At the time, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that Direct Lending would save $62 billion from 2010 to 2020. That didn't happen. The program's advocates failed to anticipate how two other Obama-backed college affordability initiatives--Income-Driven Repayment and loan forgiveness--would create a cataclysmic hit to the federal student-loan program's finances.


There are more than 20 Income-Driven Repayment programs, but they all work essentially the same way. Students struggling financially can defer their payments. When no or limited payments are made, their balances grow. Today, over 20 million borrowers are watching their loan balances increase thanks to these programs. The average balance ballooned to approximately $25,000 in 2014 from $15,000 in 2004, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and has grown still larger since then.

But the most significant explosion in student debt might still come. In 2007 Congress passed the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which allows borrowers who work for nonprofit organizations or government agencies to have their loans forgiven after 10 years. Students will be able to take advantage of this program for the first time in 2017. Yet no mechanism to evaluate who qualifies exists. Virtually every teacher, firefighter, social worker, police officer, doctor, or nurse who meets "their employer's definition of full time" could have their loans forgiven.

The law will cost about $5 billion each year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But very few close to the student-loan industry believe that the CBO's assumption will pan out. The total student-loan portfolio is now $1.3 trillion, and the program grows by approximately $100 billion annually. If only 20% more borrowers default than the CBO expects, the Education Department could face at least a $100 billion loss on its existing pool of loans.

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