It’s become an annual affair. President Obama releases his budget request to Congress and buries a bombshell in it about the runaway costs of the income-based repayment program (IBR) for federal student loans. IBR predates Obama, but he has made it more generous through legislation and regulation. Last year Mike Grunwald at Politico called out figures in the budget where the administration upped its estimate of what the program would cost for older cohorts of loans by $22 billion.
This year the bombshell is about future students. But not just any students. Graduate students in particular. And the number is much larger than $22 billion. It’s $49 billion.
My colleague Alexander Holt and I have criticized the Obama administration’s changes to IBR for providing large benefits to students who go to graduate school. We argued way back in 2012 that the changes made the loan program unnecessarily generous for graduate borrowers, which would distort incentives for schools and students alike. Economists at Barclays reached similar conclusions, estimating that the universe of students who would qualify for loan forgiveness was expansive.
In 2014, the Obama administration responded to these arguments with a proposal to roll back some of the changes it had made to IBR to “better target” benefits. But it implied the problem wasn’t all that serious when it said the rollback would save only about $600 million a year. Flash forward to the latest budget and we see the administration now estimating about $5 billion a year in savings for the same proposal (or $49 billion over 10 years). That is not a typo. It’s gone from millions to billions.
You won’t find any explanation in the budget for that change. A call to the U.S. Department of Education reveals that the Obama administration changed the estimate after conducting a recent study using data from the U.S. Treasury. The kicker? Benefits for graduate students were the driving factor.