Paying for College – The Sting of Student Loans

February 9, 2009

college debtWe’ve heard time and time again that students who graduate from college can expect to earn exponentially more income in their lifetime than non-college grads.  The figure often bandied about is one-million dollars.  Unfortunately, many graduates strapped in debt from student loans are finding that to be rather misleading.

Freelance Journalist Kathy Kristof takes a revealing look at this dilemma in the February issue of Forbes Magazine.  Her article “The Great College Hoax” exposes how some schools and lenders take advantage of young people and their parents, leaving them strapped by insurmountable debt, often with degrees that can’t produce the lucrative jobs they were promised.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Great College Hoax” Forbes Magazine, February Issue:

Borrowing has doubled over the past decade, to roughly $85 billion in new student loans in the 2007–08 academic year, bringing total student debt owed to well over half a trillion dollars. The average borrower went $19,200 into debt for a diploma in 2004, a 58% increase after inflation since 1993, according to the Project on Student Debt.

The proportion of students who graduate with more than $40,000 in debt jumped sixfold during that period, to 7.7% of the 1 million grads in 2004, or 77,500 people. Most will struggle for more than a decade to work it off, assuming relatively low 6.8% interest rates, the Project on Student Debt says.

For many, the terms are far worse. A decade ago nearly all student lending was of the low-cost, federally guaranteed variety, most of it with 6% to 8% interest kicking in only after a student left school. As costs outpaced such financing over the past decade, the share of student loans from “private” lenders rose from 7% to 23% of the market, or $20 billion in the 2007–08 academic year.

The rise of private student lending closely paralleled the subprime mortgage boom, which went from 8% of home loan originations in 2003 to 20% in 2006, before the housing meltdown sent that mortgage sector over a cliff. Private student loans resemble subprime mortgages in other ways, too. As banks and brokers did with subprime home loans, colleges and the lenders in cahoots with them commonly market private student loans alongside lower-cost alternatives, blurring the differences.

The key one is cost. Many private lenders tack 10% origination fees onto 18% variable interest rates (there is no legal limit), which begin accruing the moment a loan is funded. That has made private loans more than twice as profitable as government-guaranteed ones and lured heavy involvement from Citigroup, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has called private lending “the Wild West of the student loan industry.” Some problems he notes smack of subprime mortgage lending: lax disclosure requirements, variable interest rates that compound and make paying off the principal a Sisyphean task, and kickback agreements by which lenders pay loan originators–in this case, colleges–a cut of their revenues.

State and federal authorities have taken action to curb the outright bribery. No less illustrious institutions of higher learning than Columbia University, New York University and the University of Pennsylvania paid $1 million-plus each to settle charges of wrongdoing in the student loan market.

Yet investigations still found “troubling, deceptive and often illegal practices . . . involving lenders, educational institutions and financial aid officials,” according to Cuomo’s office and the Congressional Committee on Education & Labor. Don’t count on Washington to provide any more safeguards than it did with housing. Department of Education oversight of the student loan industry has been deemed insufficient by the Government Accountability Office.

Lacking honest input, three-quarters of high schoolers still seek to go on to college, many deluded about the financial prospects it holds, says American Institutes for Research’s Schneider. “Part of the drive is the idea it pays,” he says. “We need somebody making more realistic statements about the risks.”

The risks are hefty. Half of students entering college never earn a degree. Six in ten African-Americans depart without one. “Hundreds of thousands of young people leave our higher education system unsuccessfully, burdened with large student loans that must be repaid, but without the benefit of the wages a college degree provides,” warned a 2004 Education Trust study.

Among the half of entering students fortunate enough to get through college, millions go into debt for two-year associate degrees. These alumni outearn high school grads by only $8,400 a year. (Community colleges currently enroll 11.5 million.)

Tracy Kratzer, 27, enrolled in the International Academy of Design & Technology in Orlando, Fla. in 2003. With visions of making big bucks as a Web designer, she didn’t give much thought to the interest rate on her loan from Sallie Mae, the Fannie Mae of student lending. Kratzer didn’t know it at the time, but she was part of an experiment that has proved disastrous for borrowers and shareholders of Sallie’s parent, SLM Corp. It’s called “nontraditional” lending.

“That’s not a sociological term,” Albert Lord, chief executive of SLM Corp., told an audience of financial analysts last fall. “It’s basically kids and parents with poor credit who are at the wrong schools.”

Sallie Mae was set up by the government in 1972 and began privatizing its ownership in 1997. It began nontraditional lending in the easy-money heyday of 2002, when it cut deals with dozens of trade schools to become their preferred subprime student lender. Over the next four years Sallie doled out about $5 billion to people like Kratzer, waiving the credit scores and cosigners formerly required for its loans.

The bill arrived last year after nontraditional borrowers began entering the workforce. Of the half no longer studying, Sallie had written off 15% of loans by last June, the most recent period for which it has released figures; another 24% were delinquent. Among traditional loans for four-year universities, writeoffs ran 2% and delinquencies 4.9%.

SLM set aside $884 million to cover these bad loans in 2007 and posted its first loss. It expects nontraditional-loan writeoffs to peak this year. SLM’s stock has lost 80% since the beginning of 2007, wiping out $15 billion in value. Lord, who was unavailable for comment, is a 28-year company veteran. He made $72 million as chief executive in 2007 by unloading SLM stock before it tanked. Sallie largely abandoned nontraditional lending last January.

That’s little consolation to Kratzer. Shortly after graduating with an associate of arts degree, she discovered that the high-paying jobs she’d hoped to qualify for go to people with bachelor’s degrees and years of experience. After a bout of unemployment, when she lived off credit cards, Kratzer recently found an hourly job as a clerk at a magazine, where she earns less than the average high school grad. In the meantime her $14,000 student loan has mushroomed to $27,000–more than she makes in a year–and continues to accrue interest at 18% a year. She says collection agents for Sallie and others hound her to hit up relatives for the money she owes.

“My mom works in a restaurant. My stepdad is in prison,” says Kratzer. “There are so many people like me out there. They don’t get seen. They don’t get heard.”

Mindy Babbitt entered Davenport University in her mid-20s to study accounting. Unable to cover the costs with her previous earnings as a cosmetologist, she took out a $35,000 student loan at 9% interest, figuring her postgraduate income would cover the cost.

Instead, the entry-level job her bachelor’s degree got her barely covered living expenses. Babbitt deferred loan repayments and was then laid off for a time. Now 41 and living in Plainwell, Mich., she is earning $41,000 a year, or about $10,000 more than the average high school graduate makes. But since she graduated, Babbitt’s student loan balance has more than doubled, to $87,000, and she despairs she’ll never pay it off.

“Unless I win the lottery or get a job paying a lot more, my student debts are going to follow me to the grave,” she says.

Click here to read the entire article in Forbes Magazine.