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State-level Strategies to Reduce Student Debt

Courtney Lee March 19, 2019
photo - Students walking on UCLA Campus

As college costs have increased, the total amount of loan debt in California has risen. At four-year colleges and universities in California in 2016, 40% of first-time, full-time students took out loans to help pay for their education, according to federal data.

The average debt for California students who attend four-year public and private nonprofit schools is nearly $22,800. Repaying college debt can be a big challenge, in part because the federal landscape for repaying loans is extremely complicated. To reduce student debt, state policymakers are actively thinking about new ways to help students repay their college costs.

In 2018, nearly half (47%) of borrowers enrolled in the federal “standard repayment” plan. Under this plan, a graduate makes fixed monthly payments over the course of ten years, paying down the entire loan with interest. Regardless of income level, a graduate with a loan of $22,800—the average amount—would, at 5% interest, face payments of about $240/month. For those in less well-paying occupations or who face very high monthly payments, this kind of plan can be financially challenging.

Another option is income-based repayment, which is often more financially manageable—but a much smaller share (29%) of borrowers enrolled in an income-based program in 2018. Monthly payments might start at 10% of discretionary income, but payments increase if the graduate starts earning more. Under these plans, borrowers generally pay smaller monthly amounts over a longer period of time.

Possible reasons for lower participation in income-based repayment programs include complex eligibility requirements and missing the deadline for declaring income. Streamlining the federal loan process, including clarifying eligibility criteria, could help make the process less confusing and allow students to make the best financial choices.

At the state level, policymakers are exploring other options to ease the burden of college debt. For example, AB 140 (Cervantes) would authorize the California Student Aid Commission, which administers the state’s financial aid programs, to pay an eligible student’s monthly loan payments for two years. And AB 154 (Voepel) would pilot an “income share” program at one University of California campus and one California State University campus. This program would enable campuses to pay for some of an eligible student’s educational expenses. After graduating, students then repay a portion of their income to the campus.

It’s a positive sign that California policymakers are pursuing state-level strategies to address growing college debt. Establishing an easy-to-use application process and clear-cut eligibility criteria will be key to ensuring that students are able to benefit from these programs. Perhaps most important, more comprehensive financial aid counseling and outreach are necessary to help students make the best choice when repaying their loans.

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