In obscure data tables buried deep in its 2016 budget proposal, the Obama administration revealed this week that its student loan program had a $21.8 billion shortfall last year, apparently the largest ever recorded for any government credit program.
The main cause of the shortfall was President Barack Obama’s recent efforts to provide relief for borrowers drowning in student debt, reforms that have already begun to reduce loan payments to the government. For more than two decades, budget analysts have recalculated the projected costs of about 120 credit programs every year, but they have never lowered their expectations of repayments this dramatically. The $21.8 billion revision—larger than the annual budget for NASA, or the Interior Department and EPA combined—will be tacked onto the federal deficit.
“Wow,” marveled Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Whether or not it’s good policy to help borrowers with their payments, it’s obviously costly for taxpayers.”
The 40 million Americans with student loans are now saddled with more than $1.2 trillion in outstanding debt. And with higher education costs rising much faster than inflation, the already massive program has been growing at a spectacular clip; direct government loans alone increased 44 percent over the last two years despite an aura of austerity in Washington. The Obama administration has tried to ease the burden for some borrowers by reducing their payments to 10 percent of their income and forgiving their loans after 20 years; this year, the Education Department plans to make all borrowers eligible for that “pay-as-you-earn” relief.