DETROIT FREE PRESS - The federal government made enough money on student loans over the last year that, if it wanted, it could provide maximum-level Pell Grants of $5,645 to 7.3 million college students.
The $41.3 billion profit for the 2013 fiscal year is down $3.6 billion from the previous year but it's a higher profit level than all but two companies in the world: Exxon Mobil cleared $44.9 billion in 2012, and Apple cleared $41.7 billion.
"It's actually neither accurate nor fair to characterize the student loan program as making a profit," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during a July conference call with reporters after the Free Press and other news media reported on profits from student loans. The department did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment this week.
The numbers track the entire fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. They come as concern continues to mount about the level of indebtedness by college students and graduates. Estimates show more than $1.2 trillion in student loan debt across the nation, more than the nation owes on credit cards.
Congress is expected to take a look at the issue in the coming months.
In September, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee launched a series of hearings to look at critical issues in higher education ahead of reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which is set to expire at the end of this year. Among the issues being looked at are the student loans programs, according to Allison Preiss, press secretary for Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who heads the committee.
'Profit' depends on accounting method
Projecting how much money the government will make — or have to pay in a subsidy — on those loans is a tricky, complex formula, based on a variety of factors, experts said.
The federal Credit Reform Act of 1990 set the way the government has to account for its loans. It measures the cash outflow as the disbursement of the principal loan amount and the inflowing money as the payments of interest and principal, minus amounts not paid, plus any fees the government receives from the borrower.
But there are those who say this is a bad way to measure and predict what loans cost the government. They like something called "fair value accounting," which they say does a better job of factoring in the cost of collecting delinquent or defaulted loans and looking at the risk taken by the government when it lends out money. They say there is actually little to no profit.
This summer, Congress directed the Government Accountability Office to conduct a study on the true cost of the federal student loan programs.
In his call with reporters this summer, Duncan did not get into which method of accounting he prefers, just that he believes the government isn't running the student loan system in order to make money, but rather to help students afford college.
Debt's effect on economy
The large debt numbers have sparked concerns about impact that debt is having on the nation's economy.
"(It) is a burden which is affecting, for example, the ability of many young people to buy a first home, affecting other purchasing decisions they might make, affecting obviously their overall financial condition," Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said at a conference earlier this month. "To the extent that there's a lot of student debt held by people who are not working, it's obviously yet another drag on recovery."
Kelly Wilk, a December 2010 graduate from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, feels the impact of her loans all the time. She graduated with about $25,000 in federal loans and now owes slightly more than $22,000, with a monthly payment of $281.
"For some, this payment may not seem too bad," the 25-year-old Livonia resident said. "But for me, it is a huge monthly payment; it is pretty much a car payment or half of rent.
"It was especially difficult at first because I was unable to find full-time employment after college, yet I had to start paying my loans six months after I graduated. So there I was, working two part-time jobs and trying to pay off my loans, which eventually forced me to apply for deferment."
After two years of seeking full-time employment, Wilk said, she was able to land an entry-level job unrelated to her degree in communications.
Now it is slightly less difficult to make those payments, but certainly not the easiest," she said. "I have cut back on a lot of spending and only buy the necessities."
Loan rates expected to rise
A report issued in mid-August by the Department of Education shows that 57% of students received some sort of federal aid, and 41% of all undergrads had taken loans, up from 35% four years ago.
This summer, Congress passed a law tying interest rates on loans to the market. The law set rates for all the loans at different levels, but based them all on the 10-year U.S. Treasury rate and allowed rates to change each year.
For Stafford loans, both the subsidized and unsubsidized, the interest rate is the Treasury rate plus 2.05%, with a cap of 8.25%. Graduate student loan rates are the Treasury rate plus 3.6%, with a cap of 9.5%, and the parent loans are the Treasury rate, plus 4.6%, with a cap of 10.5%.
While offering immediate relief to students, those rates are expected to rise in coming years and give the federal government $175 billion in profits from student loans over the next decade.
That's got students who are paying steamed.
"Instead of making a profit on student loans, why doesn't the government try to help out the millions of students who are struggling financially and at the very least, lower the interest rates?" Wilk said "I don't understand how the government expects this generation to support themselves after graduation, starting out with a mound of debt and in a lot of areas, no job."