A Proposal to Radically Simplify Student Loan Payments

Whether students leave college with a degree or without one, they face a dizzying array of challenges—where to live, how to get a job, and increasingly, how to repay their loans. Five organizations, including the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and Young Invincibles, have a proposal that aims to answer that last question with a streamlined and automated alternative to the complex system of repaying loans.

As of now, and with few exceptions, borrowers must start paying back their loans six months after they leave school and repay according to a standard 10-year schedule. If their monthly payment is too high, things get complicated quickly. The government has six other repayment options. Two are pretty straightforward: Borrowers can reduce monthly costs either by extending payments over 25 years or by keeping the 10-year period but starting with smaller monthly payments that gradually increase over time.

Four more plans tie payment schedules to how much the borrower earns, each with different thresholds, eligibility, and terms. Those plans are far from perfect, but advocates for student borrowers generally like them because they provide graduates with flexibility and typically forgive the remainder of the debt after 10 to 25 years. For a long time, the Department of Education struggled to get students to use the plans, though recently borrowers are signing up in greater numbers.

The proposal rolls up a number of suggested improvements into one comprehensive attempt to fix the two biggest problems: the complexity of having so many options, and the relatively low participation by borrowers. Not unlike the successful effort to encourage automatic enrollment in retirement savings plans, the groups advocate what they call “auto-IBR,” short for income-based repayment. The plan would change the default payment option from the standard 10-year term to a repayment schedule that’s tied to a percentage of the borrower’s income and eventually forgives the remaining balance after a certain period of time. It also suggests the payments be automatically deducted from a borrower’s paycheck, similar to the way Social Security is collected, an idea championed last year by Representative Tom Petri, a Republican from Wisconsin.

The plan recommends various ways to make this work. One option is to require borrowers to pay 18 percent of everything they earn above $25,000 a year; another sets the payment level at 10 percent of income above $10,000 a year. The proposal also suggests longer terms for borrowers who take out a lot of debt, at least $50,000 or $60,000 in different scenarios. That’s to minimize giving a disproportionate benefit to students who borrow a lot—looking at you, law students!—and could see huge amounts forgiven. While this all may sound a bit complicated, it’s far simpler than the current situation.

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