How the Government Calculates the Cost of Student Loans

Equal Justice Works

A couple of weeks ago, the Student Loan Ranger detailed some of the proposals Congress is pondering to provide short- and long-term fixes to the imminent doubling of interest rates on subsidized federal direct loans. Part of that debate is data released last month by the Congressional Budget Office that shows a fiscal year 2013 "profit" of $50.6 billion for the Department of Education.

But it's not as simple as finding a fair way to help students by lowering interest rates. Some analysts argue that the government is using an inaccurate accounting method that vastly overestimates the amount the government will make both in the coming fiscal year and beyond.

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In fact, they argue, the government will lose money in the long run so it should keep interest rates the same or even raise them. As this Congressional Budget Office publication explains, the current estimates that show a government profit are based on principles established by the Federal Credit Reform Act of 1990.

The publication states first "the cost of a student loan is recorded in the federal budget during the year the loan is disbursed, taking into account the amount of the loan, expected payments to the government over the life of the loan and other cash flows." Items like the probability of default and the recovery rate are accounted for in this part of the equation.

Next, a discount rate is subtracted. A discount rate allows a calculation of gain or loss in today's dollars by taking into account market risk and the idea that money available now is worth more than the same amount of money available in the future.

[Find out the perks, pitfalls of simplifying student loan repayment.]

In the current calculation, the discount rate is simply the interest rate on U.S. Treasury securities. That is, it is the cost to the government of obtaining the funds through Treasury borrowing.

Since Treasury bills are one of the world's safest investments, using them as a discount rate doesn't take risk into account - that's been done in the first step - but does account for the lower value of money obtained later.

It's easy to see why federal student loans are projected to make a lot of money using this calculation: subtracting the low current interest rate for Treasury bills from fixed student loan interest rates of 6.8 to 7.9 percent - assuming the 3.4 percent rate on subsidized loans does double July 1 - results in a net gain for the government. In fact, under this accounting method, the budget office calculates that the government will net about $184 billion from 2013 to 2023.

However, some analysts think that this accounting is flawed because it does not sufficiently reflect risk, including, for example, the risk of default. They argue for a "fair-value" approach that would use a market-based discount rate.

In other words, the discount rate would not be based on the government's cost of borrowing but on the higher interest rate the private sector pays, which reflects a much higher degree of market risk.

Using the higher discount rate in the fair-value approach leads to far different results. The CBO projects the federal direct loan program would cost the federal government $95 billion between 2013 and 2023 instead of earning $184 billion.

That's a whopping difference - and implies far different student loan policies. So which calculation, and which policies, should be chosen?

[See how the Student Loan Fairness Act could benefit borrowers.]

Ultimately, the Student Loan Ranger feels that the current accounting method - which has worked well for decades - is the correct one for a few reasons, many of which are articulated in a report by the Center for American Progress.

Corporations and individuals are, and should be, risk averse because the consequences of unanticipated risks can be devastating to them. They should also, for similar reasons, want to ensure they make a profit. The fair-value approach adds value in that context.

But the federal government should be risk neutral and is not aiming to make a profit. The fair-value approach would drive up the budgetary cost of the student loan program in order to account for eventualities that are unlikely to occur.

This would be of little value because unlike a private entity, the federal government - with its far greater resources and ability to print money - is well-equipped to handle those eventualities. And the downside of increasing the budgetary cost of the student loan program is considerable, because it will mean there is less money available for other valuable programs such as Pell Grants.

Instead, it should focus on budgeting accurately and ensuring its money is spent wisely. A move to fair-value accounting would burden student loan borrowers with unnecessarily high interest rates for the foreseeable future.

Isaac Bowers is a senior program manager in the Communications and Outreach unit, responsible for Equal Justice Works's educational debt relief initiatives. An expert on educational debt relief, Bowers conducts monthly webinars for a wide range of audiences; advises employers, law schools, and professional organizations; and works with Congress and the Department of Education on federal legislation and regulations. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, he was a fellow at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco. He received his J.D. from New York University School of Law.