The Developing Federal Student Loan Debacle and the Real Cost to Taxpayers

20 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2015

See all articles by William J. Dodwell

William J. Dodwell

Consultant to Financial Institutions (Retired)

Date Written: August 27, 2015


Government financed student loan debt of $1.3 trillion has grown 15% a year for over a decade as tuition and other college costs have risen at a multiple of the inflation rate. Problematic are defaults and income-based repayment arrangements with their partial loan forgiveness. Applied to this burgeoning balance they pose a serious burden on taxpayers and the economy that bear the costs and effects of borrowing and taxation to fund the program. Also alarming is the prospect of total loan forgiveness and ongoing free college education gaining political currency amid the wails of so many overextended borrowers, some of whom seemingly face lifelong debt.

This paper examines the true cost of the student loan program which is enormously distorted by the U.S. Department of Education and the Congressional Budget Office. The reason is the Federal Credit Reform Act of 1990 (FCRA) requires government to adopt a misleading methodology for computing the program’s profit and loss that greatly understates defaults. As a result, the program is mistakenly believed to be profitable.

Specifically, the government computes operating results based on a net present discounted value of future cash flows. This process effectively amortizes defaults over the remaining life of respective loans, which can be up to 20 years or more, rather than recognize them fully in the period they occur like a bank. The analysis herein contrasts this methodology (subject to the limitations of opaque federal accounting), with a pro forma presentation of operations based on generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) observed by banks. The upshot: a $135 billion government projected profit for the ten-year period 2015-2024, versus a $1.9 trillion loss that a bank would report. As such, the real cost of the student loan program in the coming years compares with the losses of the 2008 financial crisis as explained in the study.

And that is just the current student loan program. If blanket loan forgiveness were declared in the next decade, taxpayers would bear an immediate budget hit of $1 trillion to $4 trillion depending on the loans outstanding at the time of implementation. In addition, taxpayers would have to support subsequent free college for all thereafter. Not only is this time bomb concealed by the current accounting methodology, but also by the political class that is loathe to inviting opposition to a program that could be a new government entitlement.

Keywords: government student loans, U.S. Department of Education, CBO accounting, loan defaults, college education

JEL Classification: H52, H60, H81, I20, P43

Suggested Citation

Dodwell, William J., The Developing Federal Student Loan Debacle and the Real Cost to Taxpayers (August 27, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

William J. Dodwell (Contact Author)

Consultant to Financial Institutions (Retired) ( email )

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics