Trump administration weighs plans to reduce student debt

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration is considering ways to help Americans with their student-loan debt, according to senior administration officials, including by refinancing loans at lower interest rates and eliminating debt in bankruptcy.

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President Trump has asked advisers for a plan that would rely on policy changes at the Education Department, which oversees federal student-loan lending, and possibly Congress. It would counter student-debt-forgiveness proposals by some Democratic presidential contenders. Sen. Bernie Sanders has called for canceling all student loan debt, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed canceling up to $50,000 in debt for anyone earning under $100,000 a year, with lower amounts for those making between $100,000 and $250,000.

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About 42 million Americans owe $1.5 trillion in student debt, the second-highest form of consumer debt after mortgages. Student debt soared during the recession and in the expansion, driven by escalating tuition costs and a surge in college and graduate-school enrollments.

White House and Education Department advisers think a program to cancel a large portion of student debt would be unfair to taxpayers and unpopular among Republican voters, senior administration officials said. Instead, officials are looking at ways to help borrowers lower their debt. The proposals are in flux and would likely require approval by Congress, aides said. One senior official said a plan probably wouldn't be completed until next year but the administration believes it can gain bipartisan support.

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"President Trump recognizes the serious situation many Americans find themselves in with rising student loan debt," said White House spokesman Judd Deere, adding that the administration has taken steps to update higher education policy.

Federal law has for decades made it far more difficult for borrowers to eliminate student loans in bankruptcy, compared with other forms of consumer debt. Few borrowers have met the standard.

Under one proposal being discussed, the administration would essentially decline to contest borrowers' requests before judges to have their student loans canceled, a move that likely could be accomplished without congressional action, one official said. The administration is also considering pushing Congress to change bankruptcy law, the official added.

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Education Department policy makers, including Secretary Betsy DeVos, are most concerned about parents and grandparents who borrowed from a federal program known as Parent Plus to help cover students' tuition, senior officials said. Under the program, borrowers undergo only a scant review of their credit and can borrow unlimited sums. Many Parent Plus borrowers are poor and at or near retirement age, and thus have no means of repaying their loans.

Defaults on federal student loans are far higher than other types of consumer debt. The government in some cases is reducing borrowers' Social Security checks and wages after they default on their student loans.

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DeVos released a proposal this month to spin off the Office of Federal Student Aid, which currently resides in the Education Department, into a stand-alone agency that would be overseen by a board appointed by the president. The new agency, which would likely require congressional approval, would be designed to have greater flexibility to negotiate new terms with borrowers for their student loans, a senior official said. That would include reducing their interest rate to market rates, the official said.

Interest rates on federal loans are set by Congress, which has repeatedly tinkered with them over the years. Currently, the interest rate is 4.53 percent for new loans for undergraduate students, 6.08 percent for many graduate student loans, and 7.08 percent for parents and graduate students. Many older student loans carry higher rates.

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The discussions have been taking place at Trump's request. He has privately raised concerns that the White House has no plan to counter Democratic debt-forgiveness proposals, officials said.

DeVos has discussed with senior White House aides her proposal to spin off the government's student loan portfolio into an independent agency. Administration officials have also discussed changing the existing rules for income-based repayment plans, a proposal that has been included in the president's budget plans.

Some in the White House are skeptical that a significant policy change will be enacted, noting that many of the ideas being discussed internally would require congressional action, which is unlikely in the near term. Others in the administration have expressed opposition to writing a plan meant to compete with the proposals put forward by Ms. Warren and Sanders.

Large-scale student-loan debt forgiveness isn't among the options being seriously considered by the White House at this time, according to administration officials.