Here’s an Idea: Don’t Do Either!

One of the biggest pieces of news coming from President Obama’s budget preview is that he’d kill federal guaranteed student lending – in which the feds subsidize private lenders – and move everything to direct lending straight from the government. He promises that cutting out the middle man would save about $4 billion a year.

In the short term, that savings figure might be possible, though whether or not that is the case is likely to be hotly contested. Washington does spend a lot subsidizing loans so that they carry almost no risk to the lenders and are, hence, low-interest and abundant. Eliminating those subsidies could save some dough. That said, there is absolutely no reason to believe that making Washington the monopolist student lender will produce any long-term efficiencies. In fact, all it will do is ensure gigantic bloat, as is the case with any government monopoly.

A recent story in the New York Times, coupled with a blog entry I wrote in November, illustrates why neither guaranteed nor direct federal lending should ever be expected to produce efficient outcomes.

On the blog I wrote about how, in order to keep things rolling during the “credit crunch,” the Bush Administration was essentially going to buy up any student loans that lenders thought were too insecure. At the time, the Education Department kept declaring that whatever the feds ended up doing it would be “cost neutral” – we wouldn’t feel a thing as they kept banks and students in the money. I wondered, skeptically, how exactly that would be done, but couldn’t find anything explaining it. All I found were Education Department promises that it would be made clear…eventually.

It turns out, I was very likely right to be suspicious. As the Times reported on Wednesday:

The program is supposed to cost taxpayers nothing, but the Obama administration has asked for additional analysis.

“We have reviewed the analysis with the staff here, and we do not have confidence in the bottom line,” said a senior official at the White House Office of Management and Budget, who insisted on anonymity, citing administration policy. Referring to differences between agreements entered into by the departing Bush administration and public descriptions of the program, the official added, “The documents on their face raise serious questions about whether it’s cost-neutral.”

So it seems likely that the government essentially lied to America. “Oh yeah – ‘cost neutral.’ Sorry. We thought you wouldn’t notice.”

What this little episode illustrates is something we frankly already knew: Government officials will happily deceive us if that’s what it takes to enact policies that they think will make them look good, especially in the short term (meaning, until the next election). With that in mind, whether the feds are working with a middle man or giving students the money directly, it almost certainly doesn’t matter: money will be lost, and probably in much bigger amounts than the public will be led to believe.

So what is government to do about student loans? Nothing! Washington should get out of the loan business and leave promising students and profit-seeking lenders to find each other in pursuit of mutual gain. (A student with high earning potential? A bank looking to make some bucks? Why, it’s a perfect match!) Then we wouldn’t have to choose between the frying pan and the fire, nor would we continue to encourage tons of people to pursue college educations they don’t need, can’t handle, or both. In other words, we’d return both some sanity and taxpayer justice to the world of college finance.