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The Subprime Loans for College Hiding in Plain Sight

Matthew A. Helfrich profile photo

Matthew A. Helfrich

Partner and President
Waldron Private Wealth
Office : 412-221-1005

If you want your kids to go to college but you can’t afford the bills, the federal government has a deal for you that will blow your mind.

You can borrow the entire cost — minus any other aid your child receives — through something called a Parent PLUS loan. Moreover, your income — and thus your ability to repay the debt — doesn’t matter. As long as you don’t have one of a handful of black marks in your recent credit history, you can borrow six figures even if your take-home pay puts you below the federal poverty level.

This is totally bananas. But don’t take my word for it.


Illustration: Robert Neubecker


“The honest truth is that Congress created a subprime lending program unintentionally,” said Rachel Fishman of New America, the left-leaning think tank.

“I absolutely hate them,” said Beth Akers, of the American Enterprise Institute, the right-leaning think tank, referring to these loans.

“It’s gone completely off the rails,” said Justin Draeger, the president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Most parents don’t pay for college using this loan. But about 3.6 million of them — with about $107 billion in outstanding debt — have. Within that group are a number of low-income Black families at schools that may not have given their kids enough help in the way of scholarships. Many of those families are struggling to repay the money that the federal government so freely offered up.

And, really, why wouldn’t moms and dads use a PLUS loan if it appears to be the least horrible option? For many people, parenting means keeping the American promise that children should do better than family members from previous generations. A college degree is a rocket booster that can help make that possible.

When Congress created parent PLUS loans in 1980, there were decent reasons for doing so. College costs had increased, and many middle-income families struggled to pay for tuition out of their income. At the time, interest rates were also very high.

The PLUS loan, which came with a lower-than-market interest rate, solved a worsening problem. It also made it easier for parents to pay a larger share of the bill and perhaps help their children borrow less.

At the time, you could borrow only $3,000 per year. In 1992, that cap went away, thanks, it seems, to a successful push by a higher education lobbying association, according to a report from the Urban Institute report in 2019.

And, as college costs escalated, and schools included information about PLUS loans in a growing number of financial aid notifications that they sent to families, more of them borrowed. The government turns you down for the loan only if, at some point recently, you’ve discharged debt in bankruptcy, been subject to a tax lien, been 90 or more days late on a big bill or had other similar problems.

A number of policy organizations have examined the impact of these loans as more data has become available. Let’s start by looking at the adjusted gross incomes of the parents who borrow using PLUS.

About one-third of white borrowers earn more than $110,001, and about 1 in 10 earn less than $30,000 a year, according to Fishman, the acting director of the higher education program at New America and the author of a 2018 study on the matter.

Black families flip the script, with 1 in 10 earning more than $110,001 and about a third earning less than $30,000 a year. Unsurprisingly, given those income statistics, the federal government has, during the financial aid application process, told 42% of Black borrowers using Parent PLUS that they can’t afford to pay a single cent toward their children’s education, according to a Century Foundation report from this year.

But if there is not enough grant money available — from the government or the college — to subsidize their kids’ tuition in full, these parents and others like them borrow anyway. To put a finer point on it, the Department of Education says it doesn’t expect them to pay anything. And yet it tends to lend many of them nearly everything.

Now, to repayment — or not. Ten years after taking out a PLUS loan, borrowers whose children attended the colleges with the highest percentage of Black students owe an average of 96% of the original principal, according to the Century Foundation. At the schools with the highest levels of white enrollment, the figure sits at 47%.

That Urban Institute report from 2019, which proposed solutions to these problems, summed up the sorry state of affairs in this way: Parent PLUS loans are “a no-strings attached revenue source for colleges and universities, with the risk shared only by parents and the government.”

Trying to assign blame is tempting but pointless. Our elected representatives should have seen the unintended consequences coming, but they were trying to make paying for college easier. Some colleges may have over-promoted PLUS loans, but federal rules forbid them from preventing some families from using the PLUS loan as long as they meet the minimal eligibility requirements.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to criticize devoted parents for trying to do right by their children. But it’s probably not prudent for many of them to borrow very much.

Unlike student loans — including PLUS loans for graduate students (about which more soon in another column) — Parent PLUS loans are not going to help them earn more. Repayment can last up to 25 years, which can push the bills well into what are supposed to be the retirement years. If you default, the federal government helps itself to a chunk of your Social Security check.

The obvious solution here is for states to subsidize their universities more generously and for the federal government to double (or more) Pell Grants for low-income students. If that happens, people won’t need to borrow as much. Politically, however, this is a nonstarter in many states — and, at least for now, at the federal level, too.

Loan cancellation is swell and all, and PLUS loans are indeed eligible for last month’s offer. But that doesn’t help parents of this year’s high school seniors.

More rigorous underwriting or the return of restrictions on PLUS loan amounts seems sensible at first glance. But are they equitable?

When the Education Department tried to turn the screws just a bit on credit standards about a decade ago, it cost historically Black colleges and universities about $150 million in lost revenue from tuition. Hurting institutions that exist, at least in part, to expand access also feels like a political nonstarter, not to mention amoral.

Alas, the most expedient fix might be to create more generous repayment terms — something based on parental income, perhaps with some kind of loan cancellation after a certain period of time. This adds complexity — not to mention possible incentive to borrow more (and for schools to charge more) — but at least it feels somewhat possible.

But all of these expensive, unworkable or unpleasant options raise an inconvenient question, one that Akers, the author of “Making College Pay,” posed to me this week: Why do we act as if college and graduate schools are infinitely valuable?

“If we reduce access with caps, we reduce access to college, and we always stop there and say that is terrible because education is wonderful,” she said.

“No one ever finishes the conversation and says that the people who were stopped were about to take on an investment that might not have a return and might put them in unaffordable debt,” Akers continued. “We seem not to be willing to have that conversation.”

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Matthew A. Helfrich profile photo

Matthew A. Helfrich

Partner and President
Waldron Private Wealth
Office : 412-221-1005