Earlier this week, Senator Bernie Sanders proposed cancelling all $1.6 trillion in outstanding student debt. Commentators on the left and the right quickly pointed out the obvious flaws. Much of the debt is held by borrowers with graduate and professional degrees who generally earn high incomes with the ability to repay. And for those who can’t, the government provides repayment assistance. But Sanders’s main justification for the debt cancellation, that it is merely the equivalent of the government’s Wall Street bailout, is another strong argument against his drastic plan.
As Sanders puts it, “If we could bail out Wall Street, we sure as hell can reduce student debt in this country.” It’s only fair, in other words.
There is no doubt that the banks received costly benefits from taxpayers during the financial crisis. What Sanders is ignoring, though, is that student borrowers already receive large benefits from taxpayers.
Nearly all of the outstanding student debt that would be cancelled was issued through a government-loan program. Yes, lawmakers helped Wall Street with a big government program, but if student borrowers already participate in their own program, aren’t the two groups now even? Throw in the fact that the main vehicle for the Wall Street bailout, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), was itself a loan program, and it is hard to argue otherwise.
Maybe Sanders believes that banks received better terms on their loans than students, or that they ultimately didn’t have to repay the debts. If so, he’s sorely mistaken.
Banks that received loans through TARP paid the government 5 percent interest for five years and 9 percent thereafter. The student-loan program today lends to undergraduates at 4.5 percent for up to a 30-year term. Most graduate students pay 6 percent. It hardly looks like banks got the better deal.
The same is true when we compare how much debt is written off. Under TARP the government cancelled $19 billion of loans made to financial companies. While that is nothing to sneeze at, the forgiveness benefits in the Income-Based Repayment program for federal student loans are projected to cost taxpayers a similar amount ($14 billion) every year. If Wall Street received something students didn’t, it is not in these numbers.
The only kernel truth in Sanders’s argument is to be found buried in budget tables which show that the government opened its wallet a little more for the banks than for students. At the depths of the financial crisis, TARP loans were expected to cost taxpayers $25 dollars for every one hundred dollars lent (a number that was later revised sharply lower). Student loans cost $21 dollars on the same measure today.
On most counts then, students and banks received remarkably equal treatment. Even the budget numbers that suggest banks had a slightly better deal are certainly not enough to justify cancelling $1.6 trillion in student loans. By that accounting, only the most minor change to the loan program is in order. A one percentage point reduction in students’ interest rates would probably do the trick.
If that sounds like an underwhelming proposal, that’s because it’s based on what turns out to be an underwhelming comparison.