The Hill

It’s Time for Universities to Share the Burden of Student Loan Defaults

Low Memorial Library and Quad at Columbia University in New York City. (Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Low Memorial Library and Quad at Columbia University in New York City. (Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

While the nation is rightly worried about the proliferation of antisemitism on its college campuses, another higher education abuse also needs prompt attention.

On Dec. 6 – St. Nicholas Day – President Biden handed student loan defaulters another $5 billion gift in debt forgiveness. The administration’s eagerness to win the votes of student loan borrowers by shifting the cost of student debt from borrowers to taxpayers now adds up to $132 billion of student loans those borrowers will not have to pay — even though the Supreme Court ruled a related scheme unconstitutional last June.

But if borrowers don’t pay the debts they incurred and default on their debts, someone else has to pay. Right now, that someone else is American taxpayers. Now it’s time that the cost of nonpayment of student loans be shared by those who have benefitted the most directly from federal student loans: namely, the colleges and universities themselves.

By inducing their students to borrow from the government, higher education institutions collect vastly inflated tuition and fees, which they then spend without worrying about whether the loans will ever be repaid. This in turn incentivizes them to push the tuition and fees, and room and board, ever higher — by an average of 169 percent since 1980, according to a Georgetown University study.

In short, in the current system the colleges get and spend billions in borrowed money and put all the loan risk on somebody else — including those student borrowers who responsibly pay off their own debt and those who never borrowed in the first place, not to mention taxpayers, whether they attended a college or not.

This perverse pattern of incentives and rewards must stop. A more equitable model would insist that colleges have serious “skin in the game.” It would insist that they participate to some degree in the losses from defaulted and forgiven loans to their own students.

This idea has been thoughtfully discussed and proposed in Congress before, but now is the time to implement a model that realigns incentives and rewards in our national student loan system and distributes the burden of risk more equitably.

The first principle should be that the more affluent the college is, the higher its participation in the losses should be. The wealthiest colleges with massive endowments should be covering 100 percent of any losses on federal loans to their students, which they can easily afford. Others can cover a lower, but still significant, percentage, but every college that finances itself with federal student loans should assume some real cost when its students default on their loans. Four million student loans enter default each year, not counting the Biden scheme for student loan “forgiveness,” which creates even more losses.

Specifically, we propose the following “skin in the game” requirements for colleges on losses from federal student loans to their students, based on their endowment size:

Endowment Size     Cumulative Rank in Endowments   Coverage of Losses

Over $10 billion                           Top 0.6%                                          100%

$5 billion to $10 billion                Top 1.1%                                            80%

$3 billion to $5 billion                  Top 1.7%                                            60%     

$2 billion to $3 billion                  Top 2.6%                                           40%

All others                                         100%                                               20%

Any fair observer would have to conclude that this represents a rational and efficient matching of benefits and costs.

Moreover, we propose that the most affluent colleges that participate in federal student loans, such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford, should contribute to a “Trust to Offset Losses from Federal Student Loans” through an excise tax on their endowments — some of which are larger than the GDP of sovereign countries. 

This tax would apply to only about the top 1 percent or 2 percent of college endowments. The trust would then be used to offset some of the remaining losses the less affluent colleges cannot pay, thus sharing the wealth of the top 1 percent or 2 percent to help others in need.

For the excise tax to fund the Trust to Offset Losses, we propose:

Endowment Size           Cumulative Rank In Endowments         Tax Rate                     

Over $5 billion                             Top 1.1%                               1% per annum

$2.5 to $5 billion                         Top 2%                                   0.5% per annum

It seems only fair that the wealthiest colleges be asked to contribute to cover the student loan losses the Biden administration is sticking taxpayers with. After all, they benefited the most from the Great Tuition Bubble since the 1980s, just as subprime mortgage brokers benefited in the Great Housing Bubble in the early 2000s.

Since Biden’s St Nicholas Day gift to student borrowers simultaneously gave a large lump of coal to the taxpaying public, not to mention to those borrowers who made every sacrifice to meet their loan obligations, it’s high time to give the rest of us a Christmas present of a new model for government student loans. The proper model should be one that will keep on giving as colleges and universities take on the responsibility and accountability they have shirked until now.

Read in The Hill.