Getting Student Financing Right in the US: Lessons from Australia and England

March 2017
Susan Dynarski, Nicholas Barr, Bruce Chapman, Lorraine Dearden

The US student loan system is currently in crisis. US graduates owe $1.3 trillion in student loans; seven million borrowers are in default and even more are in arrears. The impact on borrowers is catastrophic. We argue that this is mainly due to the fact that the US operates mortgage-type student loans: these are repaid over a set period of time, which places high repayment burdens on low earning graduates. We draw on the experience of the income-contingent loan (ICL) systems operating in England and Australia, and use US Current Population Survey (CPS) data to show how such a loan system could be implemented in the US and assess the revenue and distributional implications. We also compare repayment burdens under the two systems. The current US income-based arrangements are not income contingent for the most important subset of borrowers – those with unstable employment and income and/or hours of work. We show that US mortgage style loans (such as Stafford loans) imply extremely difficult financial circumstances for a significant minority of US loan recipients, and that a well designed ICL can solve these problems in an efficient and cost-effective way with no risk of default.

We are grateful for helpful comments from participants at a conference on Restructuring Student Loans: Lessons from Abroad, Washington DC, 13 June 2016 and a Higher Education Finance Workship, Tongji University, October 20 2016. Bruce Chapman wishes to acknowledge financial assistance from the Australian Research Council and the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University. Lorraine Dearden and Bruce Chapman wish to acknowledge funding from the HEFCE and ESRC funded Centre for Global Higher Education, Grant no. ES/M010082/1.