Direct Lending

Greetings from the Financial Aid Office!

[Last week, we reported  (see here and here) on the fact that some of the student loan industry's most fervent supporters in the financial aid world are potentially putting their schools and students at risk by refusing to take even the initial steps to prepare for a possible shift to direct lending next fall. Since then, we've been wondering how these aid directors would explain their inaction to students. So, after hearing the comments that  financial aid administrators and lenders made at last week's Lexington Institute event and on the Finaid-L listserv, we decided to write up a fictional account of how these aid officials might explain themselves. We hope you enjoy it.]

Dear Students,

As you may have heard, we have recently taken action that could potentially disrupt your ability to obtain federal student loans next fall. But we want to assure you that there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Our good friends in the student loan industry have a sure-fire strategy in place to stop any efforts in Washington that would force us to change the way we do business. And for that we're very grateful because we can't imagine doing things any other way.

Here's some background. Last month, we received a letter from U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urging us to take at least the initial steps to become "Direct Loan-ready" for the 2010-11 academic year. As you may know, the Obama administration has proposed ending the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program in favor of 100 percent direct lending. Under the plan, tens of billions of dollars in savings from making the switch, and eliminating lender subsidies, would be used to provide a substantial boost in spending on Pell Grants, which go to the most financially needy students. This may sound good but it won't help us much because we don't enroll many of those students. In other words, the upper middle income students we predominantly serve will be left out in the cold!

The Loan Industry’s Friends in Congress Go on the Attack

Earlier this week, we called attention to the fact that some of the student loan industry's most fervent supporters in the financial aid world are potentially putting their schools and students at risk by refusing to take even the initial steps to prepare for the possible shift to direct lending next fall.

This is particularly worrisome, because as we wrote, no matter what happens with the student loan reform legislation that Congress is considering, the end of the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program is coming. That's because an emergency law that is currently propping up FFEL, the Ensuring Continued Access to Student Loans Act (ECASLA), is set to expire this summer and neither the Obama administration nor Democratic Congressional leaders are interested in extending it. So unless the financial markets improve enough so that lenders do not have to depend on federal financing to make government-backed loans to students, colleges will likely have to shift to direct lending.

Department of Education officials have been trying to get that message out. Late last month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent a letter to colleges that have not taken any steps yet to start preparing for a possible conversion. "While there are encouraging signs that financial markets are rebounding, the most prudent course of action is for you to ensure that your institution is Direct Loan-ready for the 2010-2011 academic year," he wrote. "That way, loan access to your students will be assured."

The Education Secretary's letter set off a firestorm of controversy on Capitol Hill, with the student loan industry's closest allies in Congress falling all over themselves to be the first to condemn the Obama administration of strong-arming colleges. Both the Democrat Ben Nelson and the Republican Mike Johanns from the great State of Nelnet (whoops, we mean Nebraska) sent letters to Duncan (see here and here) last week expressing their outrage.

Delay or No Delay, Change is on the Way

Back in September, we predicted that we'd all be in for "a wild ride" as legislation to overhaul the federal student loan programs makes its way through Congress. Boy, were we wrong.

Instead, progress on the legislation, which would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program in favor of 100 percent direct lending, has come to a grinding halt. Senate Democratic leaders have put the student loan bill on hold until they come to a resolution on the sweeping health care reform legislation that has deeply divided the chamber. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's recent admission that he may not be able to get a vote on the President's top domestic priority by year's end means that the student loan measure may not make it to the Senate floor until next January or February at the earliest.

The fate of the student loan and health care measures are intertwined because Senate leaders continue to hold out the possibility of using the budget reconciliation process (the vehicle through which the student loan bill will ultimately be moved) to push through the health care overhaul. While it seems unlikely that they will go down this route (as many of the reforms they are proposing would not survive this type of parliamentary maneuver), they may not have any other choice if they can't get the votes they need to defeat a Republican-led filibuster of the measure.

The Student Loan Industry’s Messaging Machine at Work

As we reported on Tuesday, Qorvis Communications, a top public relations firm in Washington, has taken the lead in the student loan industry's efforts to manufacture grassroots student opposition to legislation that would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program. But getting students to rally behind an unpopular industry that profits from their indebtedness has not proven to be an easy task. The firm's desperation has become all too evident in recent weeks.

Take, for instance, the case of Patrick McBride. In a press release announcing the launch of its "Protect Student Choice" public relations effort, Qorvis officials listed McBride, a student at Vanderbilt University, as one of four "local campaign members" -- with the others being leaders of non-profit student loan agencies.

But who is McBride? A former colleague of ours, the enterprising Ben Miller of Education Sector, sought to find out. In an interview he conducted with McBride, Miller learned that he was a first-semester freshman who got interested in the issue while doing research on the Internet. McBride, who would not say whether or not he had taken out student loans (although he added that he "did not have a stake" in the issue), was initially "ambivalent" about the student loan reform legislation. But after talking to David Mohning, the university's financial aid director and a longtime supporter of the FFEL program, he was convinced that the bill was a bad idea.

Exclusive: A Peek into the Student Loan Industry’s Messaging Machine

It's no wonder Americans are deeply suspicious of special interest lobbyists in Washington. Take the student loan industry's latest efforts to kill legislation pending in Congress that would end the Federal Family Education Loan program. It's a prime example of special interest lobbying at its worst.

In 2007, shortly after President Bush signed into law a bill cutting government subsidies to lenders and guaranty agencies, the student loan industry bought into a new strategy to thwart any future Congressional action that might reduce its subsidies further: manufactured grass roots opposition (otherwise known as astroturfing). With Democrats firmly in control of Congress and in a good position to take back the White House in the upcoming presidential election, industry officials knew that the FFEL program was in jeopardy.

Enter Qorvis Communications, a prominent Washington-based public relations firm that had gained notoriety earlier in the decade for its work on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government. Eager for the loan industry's business, one of the firm's partners made a pitch for the company at the 2007 legislative conference of the National Council of Higher Education Loan Programs, a trade group that represents guaranty agencies and non-profit lenders. In a power-point presentation entitled "What Just Hit Us?", this Qorvis executive said that the loan industry had lost the loan subsidy battle because it "had no organized constituency" to "counter" its critics.

Sweeping the Student Loan Scandal Under the Rug

The student loan industry must think we all have very short memories. As part of their effort to derail legislation that would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, lenders have been sharing talking points with Senators and staff arguing that the “pay for play” scandals that engulfed the student loan industry in 2007 were much ado about nothing.

“After thorough investigations by Congress and various state Attorneys General, there were no findings that any employee or a lending institution or school broke any laws, nor were there any criminal penalties levied,” lenders wrote in talking points -- which Higher Ed Watch has obtained -- that were distributed to Senate staff.

While that statement may have been technically true at the time it was first made, it’s a brazen sweeping under the rug of a scandal that outraged the American public, particularly college students and their parents. New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo did charge about a dozen colleges and lenders, such as loan giants Sallie Mae and Nelnet, with violating federal and state laws, and filed lawsuits against them. But instead of fighting Cuomo, the student loan companies and schools quickly reached settlement agreements with his office that required them to change their conduct. In other words, they were not confident enough about the legality of their practices to defend them in court.

The lenders’ claim is particularly cavalier given that they were only able to avoid being penalized because of who was guarding the henhouse. Bush Administration appointees at the U.S. Department of Education with strong ties to the student loan industry simply looked the other way while lenders and college financial aid offices engaged in kickback schemes.

The Astroturf Lobby

Pity the student loan industry. Even with the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program on the verge of extinction, the industry's plight has not generated grass-roots opposition from anyone other than those who have a vested interest in the program's survival (yes, that includes financial aid administrators who serve on lender and guaranty agency advisory boards and/or belong to state associations that depend heavily on student loan providers for leadership and financial support).

There have not been any angry town hall meetings with citizens raging about a government takeover of this federal program. Students and their parents are not rushing the barricades to demand that lenders be allowed to continue collecting generous subsidies for making virtually risk-free loans.

The indifference of students and their families to President Obama's proposal to kill FFEL shouldn't come as a surprise -- as the terms and conditions of federal student loans are pretty much identical whether they come from the loan industry or from the U.S. Department of Education's Direct Lending program. And despite the loan industry's best efforts, students are not up in arms about losing their ability to choose their own lenders -- because they've never really had much of a choice at all and most really couldn't care less about where their federal loans come from, as long as they get the money on time to pay their college bills. Furthermore, students have never been able to choose between Direct Loans and FFEL, despite the collective misunderstandings of some Senate Republicans, the Heritage Foundation, and The Wall Street Journal. Only colleges and universities can choose which program their respective students borrow under, and it's extremely unlikely that any student has chosen a college based on its participation in either Direct Lending or FFEL.

On to the Senate...

Legislation that the U.S. House of Representatives approved last week would make landmark changes to the federal student loan programs -- changes that we have advocated at Higher Ed Watch for the last three years.

We can not overstate the significance of this achievement. Despite fierce opposition from the deep-pocketed student loan industry and their allies on Capitol Hill, the House moved forward with a bill that would eliminate unnecessary middlemen from the process of originating and guaranteeing federal student loans, and would have the government make all federal student loans directly. If this change is enacted into law, it will overwhelmingly simplify the federal student loan program and redirect a massive amount of federal funds out of the pockets of lenders and into the hands of the students who need the help the most.

Having said that, the House bill is far from perfect. The measure contains one provision that we believe is extremely misguided and will, if enacted, harm the cause of student loan reform, and another that would gut a key consumer protection provision in federal law that aims to safeguard students from unscrupulous trade schools. It also has other provisions that are well-intentioned but, as written, are unlikely to achieve the lofty goals the bill's authors have set for them.

Attention will soon shift to the Senate, where the leaders of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee are expected to release their own version of the student loan reform legislation shortly. While the Senate committee will likely stick to the same broad outlines as the House, it could make a few key changes that would significantly strengthen the measure.

The Loan Industry’s Talking Points

With the U.S. House of Representatives poised to take up legislation that would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program and provide all federal student loans directly from the government, lawmakers opposed to the plan are coming armed with talking points straight from the student loan industry. Unfortunately for these legislators, many of the lenders' arguments against the Direct Loan program just don't stand up to scrutiny.

At Higher Ed Watch, we have expended a lot of ink (or at least a lot of blog space) over the last six months analyzing and critiquing the loan industry's arguments. In preparation for House floor action on the legislation, we thought it would be a good time to revisit some of the lenders' most dubious claims and to run excerpts from previous posts that responded to them.

Here are some of the arguments you're likely to hear and our take on them:

Argument: By proposing to provide federal student loans entirely through the Direct Lending (DL) program, the Obama administration and Democratic Congressional leaders are trying to "nationalize" or impose a "government takeover" of the federal student loan program.

Our Response: "We have news for the lenders: it is impossible to nationalize a government program. By definition, the FFEL program is already a nationalized program because it is a government program, just like direct lending...Sorry, lenders; it's a little late to complain about nationalization. Lyndon Johnson settled that fight a long time ago." (Can You Nationalize a Government Program?)

House Republicans Confused on Student Loan Debate

How many employees does it take to run a government program? Conservative ideology teaches that the correct answer is, "as few as possible." Can the federal government create jobs? Conservative ideology teaches that the correct answer is, "No, because the federal government must first tax someone, thereby destroying jobs, to generate the revenue that will pay the salaries of government employees." Great conservative politicians and legislators of the past, such as Barry Goldwater (pictured at far right), had these basic tenets running through their veins. Yet these principles appear to be all but lost on today's Republican party when it comes to the issue of federal student loan policy.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are grasping for good public policy arguments to fight legislation now under consideration in the House of Representatives that would eliminate the Federal Family Education Loan program (FFEL), which subsidizes private lenders to make government-backed loans, and replace it with an expansion of the Direct Loan program. But a recent memo on the student loan reform bill from the House Republican Conference (a sort of GOP messaging machine) reveals a party deeply confused about its core principles -- and about how the federal student loan program works. The memo tells House Republicans to oppose a move to 100 percent direct lending because it "kills jobs and greatly expands the federal government's control of the education loan market." Come again?