Thursday, June 19, 2014

Pricing student loan risk

One peculiarity of the student loan market is that loan contracts are the same for all forms of post-secondary education.  This means that someone borrowing for a Harvard MBA pays the same interest rate and has the same repayment terms as someone borrowing for a degree from a Bible college or a barber school.  This happens, Bloomberg Businessweek argues, because (1) the federal programs make no distinctions and (2) FDIC rules forbid banks from making such distinctions.  Ironically, banks can have different terms across individuals for auto or home loans, but not student loans.  Default rates on student loans vary tremendously by college and program, below 2 percent at Stanford and Duke but 42 percent at Arizona Automotive Institute.

This is not an easy problem to fix.  Most students are young and do not have a work or credit history that provides good predictions about what their credit worthiness will be five to ten years into the future.  On the other hand, the bulk of the defaults are coming from schools that heavily rely on federal loan support for their very existence but are currently not being held accountable for their graduates' behavior.  Balancing access to higher education with responsible pricing will not be easy.

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