Friday, August 19, 2011
GAO Report: Federal Website for Private Student Loans May Be Unneeded
A report issued on September 29 by the Government Accountability Office has concluded that a Congressionally ordered federal Web-based tool to help college students compare terms and lenders for federal and private student loans may be a significant challenge to implement and could be entirely unnecessary.
The 36-page GAO report says the tool, which is mandated by the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) of 2008, is no longer needed for federal student loan comparisons because all federal college loans are now issued directly by the Department of Education through the Federal Direct Loan program.
Student loan legislation contained within the Obama administration's health care reform package that passed through Congress in March eliminated the third-party federal student loan program that had previously allowed private lenders to issue federal education loans on behalf of the government. With no private lenders originating federal student loans, there are no longer multiple lenders or multiple borrower incentives (like rate and fee discounts) for students to compare.
As for comparisons of non-federal private student loans, the GAO notes that prospective borrowers who seek private student loans may already have sufficient information readily available to them, both through their schools' financial aid offices and through individual lenders' websites.
Providing a private student loan search and comparison tool may also conflict with the Department of Education's longtime financial aid message, as well as its re-aligned mission of being the primary provider of federal student loans.
The Department of Education has made a practice of encouraging families to take advantage of all available federal financial aid — grants, work-study, and low-cost government parent and student loans — before turning to costlier private student loans. Placing a tool for finding and comparing private student loans on the Education Department's website, the GAO points out, could lead some students or parents to mistakenly believe that the department is endorsing the use of private student loans alongside federal financial aid, even before a student's federally guaranteed financial aid dollars are exhausted.
Furthermore, as the Education Department's "federal financial aid first" message has gained traction and as fewer recession-stung borrowers have been able to qualify for credit-based private student loans, the use of private student loans has declined, further diminishing, the GAO argues, the need for the private loan comparison site.
According to GAO figures, private student loan lending decreased to about billion in 2008–09, a drop of 50 percent from the volume of private student loans originated in 2007–08.
Providing useful data on private student loans would require the Department of Education to secure the cooperation of a large number of banks and private lenders. Each lender has its own lending guidelines for its private education loan program, and almost all lenders regard their underwriting criteria as proprietary information.
A lender's underwriting guidelines determine not only what kind of income and credit profile is required to qualify for the lender's private student loan program, but what rates and fees an eligible borrower will qualify for: Borrowers with weaker credit will generally pay higher rates and fees than borrowers with very good credit.
Without having access to lenders' closely guarded underwriting guidelines, the Department of Education would likely not be able to create a loan tool that would supply the intended proper guidance to prospective borrowers to help them determine which private student loans would be available to them or which private student loan programs would offer them the best rates.
Additionally, since the HEOA-mandated student loan tool requires the Department of Education to provide real-time information on student loan interest rates, availability, repayment options, and lending oversight, the department would need to expend significant resources to continually verify and update the accuracy of its private education lender data in order to avoid the appearance of bias against or endorsement of any particular lender.
This need for resources points to another significant challenge identified by the GAO: minimizing the cost of the student loan tool to the federal government. The tool would, in the GAO's assessment, "require a considerable investment." The Department of Education has already determined that such a tool should not be developed or funded by private student loan lenders, but the department itself is unwilling to guarantee that it can provide a stable funding source to meet the HEOA mandate.
As of February, under another provision of the HEOA, lenders that offer private student loans must provide borrowers with additional disclosures regarding the overall cost of a private student loan and the student's eligibility for federal financial aid. The GAO maintains that these new required disclosures further reduce the need for the mandated student loan tool.
While GAO research indicates that students may find a government-sponsored student loan comparison site to be more factual and neutral than one run by lenders, several lenders and higher education associations questioned whether the federal comparison tool would simply duplicate existing resources and information already made available online by various student loan lenders and consumer advocacy groups.
Moreover, education officials note, most students turn primarily to their school to obtain information about financial aid and college loans. By supporting the ability of colleges and universities to provide accurate student loan information, the Department of Education may better be able to reach the target population than by creating its own student loan comparison website.
Modification of the student loan tool mandate, however, would require Congressional approval. To date, members of Congress have not indicated they are willing to alter the terms of the HEOA.
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