Washington — Tucked inside the health care reform law is significant financial relief for the millions of students who borrow to obtain a higher education.
No longer will private lenders play the middleman in federal student loan transactions. As of July, all new federal loans will come directly from the U.S. Department of Education.
This doesn’t mean that private-sector student loans will go away. Many students use the higher-priced loans to bridge the gap between the annual limits for federal loans and the cost of college.
But I doubt many students care who issues their loans. They’ll still be stuck in debt bondage for decades. From 2000 to 2009, the amount of outstanding federal student loans alone more than quadrupled, from about $149 billion to about $630 billion, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found.
Still, there is something to trumpet about the provisions directed at higher education.
The federal Pell Grant program will get a badly needed financial boost. The Obama administration says the new law pumps more than $40 billion into this program, which provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduates and certain post-baccalaureate students.
Starting in 2013, the award will add on a cost-of-living increase, raising the maximum from $5,550 to $5,975, according to CBO estimates.
What really excites me are additional funds for community colleges, historically black colleges and other institutions that serve minorities. Community colleges are expected to get $2 billion over four years. Minority and historically black colleges and universities will get $2.55 billion.
“I have seen firsthand the power of community colleges to change lives and serve as a gateway to opportunity for students at all stages of their lives and careers,” said Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden and an English instructor at Northern Virginia Community College.
I’ve advocated for a while that when faced with high education costs, students and their parents should not rule out a community college. It’s an affordable way to get two years of study.
I want to note another news event that put a light on student loans. The U.S. Supreme Court recently handed down a decision that some might read as allowing them to get rid of student loan debt by filing for bankruptcy protection.
Under the Bankruptcy Code, a student loan cannot be discharged unless paying the debt would impose an undue hardship. It’s a hard hurdle to jump.
However, one borrower was able to discharge some of his student loan debt under a Chapter 13 filing without showing hardship. The creditor had failed to object after receiving notice of the proposed plan.
Did this open a window through bankruptcy for debtors struggling with student loan debt?
Not at all, bankruptcy experts say. In this case, the creditor snoozed and lost. It would be “risky” for someone to get a loan discharged without proving hardship, said Juliet M. Moringiello, resident scholar for the American Bankruptcy Institute.
At least, provisions in the health care law will lower the cap on monthly payments for some.
Beginning in 2014, student loan payments under the income-based repayment plan will be capped at no more than 10 percent of a borrower’s discretionary income, the amount of a person’s adjusted gross income that exceeds 150 percent of the poverty line for the borrower’s family size. Currently, payments are capped at 15 percent.
If people keep up their payments, any borrowed amount not paid after 20 years will be forgiven (down from the current 25 years). For public service workers — teachers, nurses and those in military service — the debt is forgiven after 10 years.
In many respects, it was quite appropriate to fold higher education provisions into the health care reform legislation. The financial health of a lot of people has been impacted by the amount of debt they use to get an education.