As student loan debt reaches unprecedented levels, it will become important that government officials find methods to reduce the cost of a college education, encourage repayment, and allow debtors a way out if repayment is simply impossible. While reducing the cost of a college education and allowing debtors a way to receive a discharge of student load debt are issues that are beyond the scope of my expertise, utilizing the US tax code to encourage borrowers to repay their loans could be a powerful and beneficial tool to get student loan debt repaid.
There are a couple of misguided principles that currently rule how the tax code encourages American's to get a college education. First, education credits currently end up benefiting parents who (in many cases) may not pay a dime of the student's educational expenses, or they are only available to the student in years where they have no income. Second is that student loan interest is the only benefit available to student's who are making their loan payments. Unfortunately, the student loan interest deduction is limited to a paltry 2,500 dollars and the deduction is completely eliminated if your income is more that 80,000 dollars (160,000 for taxpayers filing married joint returns). The first principle wastes tax benefits for the student who is going repay the debt, and the second principle doesn't provide a strong enough incentive for students to diligently repay their student loan debt.
Tax Credits for Graduates
Education tax credits would be better utilized if they were carried forward, usable by the student borrower only, and only allowable after graduation from a bachelor or graduate program. This would reduce the number of tax credits that are taken each year by making graduation a prerequisite for claiming the tax benefit. It may also reduce the number of students that attend college each year who lack the direction and intention of graduating with their degrees.
This would also provide new graduates with an income cushion that would make loan repayment a less stressful proposition in the early years of their new careers while their income is lower.
Unlimited Student Loan Interest Deduction
The student loan interest deduction could be made fully deductible. Doing so would provide incentive for repaying the loans and increase the repayment percentages. The deduction could also be tiered between borrowers who finish their degrees and those that do not graduate. If the borrower graduated, the interest deduction could remain a adjustment from income. Borrowers who do not graduate would be eligible for an itemized student loan interest deduction.
In order to keep this proposal revenue neutral, limits that have been in place against student loan interest (at different levels possibly) should be made to apply against the mortgage interest deduction. The mortgage interest deduction has been a special interest loophole for the mortgage industry and realtors for several years. Unfortunately, it has been a contributing justification for unsustainable increases in home prices across the country for the past 10-15 years and ballooning debt. If we take a utilitarian approach to providing individual income tax benefits, it is clear that providing more tax relief to college graduates is of more value to society than rewarding mortgage debtors. The cost of a completed college education benefits the country with a more competitive workforce and taxpayers with a high earning capacity, while bloated mortgages benefit big banks and the bottom line of realtors that make thousands of dollars on every sales transaction that they close.
Student loan defaults are a major problem facing our nation's budget. Congress must find better answers to encourage loan repayment, and this issue needs to be solved sooner than later. Current student loan default rates are at 11%, but the true rate of non-repayment is far higher if the number of borrowers on reduced or income based repayment plans are taken into account.