The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There’s a way to dramatically lower student debt payments, but hardly anyone uses it


By the time Wayne Tibak graduated from college this spring, he had more than $118,000 in student debt. Then came the monthly payments, $1,700 due every month. Tibak started working two jobs, one during the day at Home Depot and another at night at Wal-Mart. But it wasn’t nearly enough to make the math add up.

So he turned to Google, typing “student loan payments” into the search bar. That’s when Tibak discovered a government program he’d never heard of—one that lets borrowers cap their monthly loan payments depending on how much income they’re earning.

The White House has enacted broad initiatives to give students more options for repaying their loans. Yet only 14 percent of Americans with federal student debt are enrolled in government plans that allow them to lower their payments if they’re not making enough money to cover them, according to data from the Department of Education.

The plans are designed to prevent borrowers like Tibak from defaulting on their loans, a problem faced by about 20 percent of people repaying college debt. The trouble is that many of these borrowers are unaware of their repayment options. And even those in the know are often confused by the myriad of choices, terms and paperwork required.

“There is no question that we need better information, better loan counseling, outreach after people enter repayment to make sure that borrowers know their options,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), an education nonprofit. “And those options need to be improved.”

With national student debt approaching $1.3 trillion and many young graduates struggling to find jobs that pay enough to cover their monthly payments, these flexible repayment plans are critical. Those who miss out are more likely to default on their student debt, which comes with serious consequences. Defaulting on student debt can severely damage a person’s credit rating, making it much harder to buy a car or a house or get a credit card.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, is redoubling its efforts to get the word out about these repayment plans. But some worry that the efforts may not be enough to reach those who most need the help.

“The White House needs to be convening all of the different agencies that work on student loans, and saying how do we all collectively get the word out?”said Chris Hicks, an organizer for Jobs With Justice’s Debt-Free Future campaign. “There’s got ro be an expectation of better service [while borrowers are still in school], where before you graduate they say, ‘If you’re not sure what your job is going to be, there is something called income-based repayment.'”

Understanding the options

The government has allowed borrowers to repay amounts based on their income for the last 20 years, but the Obama administration expanded the number of options and eligibility.

Plans vary based on the type of federal loan, and only loans provided by the government are eligible.

One of the most widely available plans is what’s known as the income-based repayment (IBR) program, which covers new and older loans. It caps payments to about 15 percent of your income and forgives any balance that exists after 25 years. The calculation is based on your discretionary income, or whatever you earn above 150 percent of the federal poverty line ($17,505 for a single person).

If you make $30,000, for instance, your discretionary income would be $12,495. That means your monthly loan payments would initially be capped at $156.18. You have to update your financial information every year, so the more you make the more you will pay.

After his Google search and a subsequent post seeking advice on Reddit, Tibak asked his loan servicer, Navient, about the repayment options available to him. The company told him he was eligible to have his federal loan payments lowered from $976 a month to $105 a month through IBR.

Since Navient also manages his private loans, the company was able to lower those payments from $725 a month to a little under $400 a month by reducing the interest and extending the years of repayment.

One reason that borrowers end up missing opportunities to adjust their payment plans is that they can be incredibly complicated. Advocates encourage people to use the Department of Education’s repayment estimator to get a sense of what their payments would be under various plans based on their income and loans.

While borrowers can directly apply online for the plan offering the lowest payment, they can also enroll through their student loan servicers, the middlemen who collect payments.

“The people who have the biggest role in this are the servicers that get paid hundreds of millions of dollars every year,” said Hicks of Debt Free. “Even while you’re a student you’re assigned to a servicer that has your contact information, that’s supposed to be giving you updates.”

The government has tried adding incentives to get servicers to assist borrowers. The Department of Education recently renegotiated its contracts with the companies, like Navient and Great Lakes, that manage the government’s portfolio of student debt, offering bonuses to those that reduce delinquencies or defaults. Advocates still worry that the incentives are not enough to hold the firms accountable for letting borrowers slip through the cracks.

Still, in the past year, there has been a significant increase in the number of borrowers able to peg their monthly payments to their incomes. The percentage of people enrolled in such programs at the end of September increased 64 percent from the same time a year earlier, according to the Department of Education. And the White House has directed the agency to advertise the plans through tax preparations providers like TurboTax as well as direct outreach to struggling borrowers.

Related: A guide to paying off your student loans

A pathway out of debt

Tibak is relieved to have a path for tackling his loans. But the road out of his debt isn’t simple.

While in school, he did an unpaid internship with New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s re-election campaign. To fit that into his schedule, Tibak cut back his hours at Home Depot and used credit cards to cover expenses. As result, he racked up $8,000 in credit card debt.

But the real burden is still the money Tibak owes for his education.

There were no scholarships or grants. Tibak’s family could only afford to lend him $3,000, so every semester he took out loans to finish a bachelor’s in political science.

“I spent time in and out of community college, which I wish I finished before going to four-year school because it would have sped up graduation,” Tibak said. “I wouldn’t have near the amount of debt that I do.”

It took Tibak six years to graduate Ramapo College, a small public school in New Jersey. He took some time off, but mostly he had trouble carrying a full course load while working.

“Being so far in debt has put a huge burden on me and it has honestly made me feel miserable,” Tibak said. “I’m 28 and still live at home. I want to pay off my loans in five years, which means I’ll either remain living at home or work two or more jobs.”

Because student loan payments are now pegged to his income, Tibak could spend many more years paying off his loans. Ten years is the standard repayment for federal loans, but the type of plan that Tibak is on doubles the timeline, forcing borrowers to pay more in interest over the life of the loan. If he spends the full 25 years repaying his loan under the plan, Tibak could pay an additional $41,000 in interest.

Every year Tibak will have to submit paperwork proving, among other things, his income to continue benefiting from the program.

Advocates say the government could make the program much simpler so that more graduates can benefit. A new report from the New America Foundation argues that the government should automatically enroll borrowers in an income-driven plan and withhold payments from their paychecks, much like Social Security taxes. Both steps would dramatically reduce defaults and delinquency while keeping payments affordable, said the report.

“We don’t ask people to write and send in monthly checks for their income taxes or Social Security-why should student loans be any different?” said Alexander Holt, a policy analyst at New America, which co-authored the report with Young Invincibles and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrator. “Those who can pay back have a small amount deducted from their paycheck, and for those who can’t afford to repay, there’s no payment due, no paperwork and no debt collectors.”

Putting that sort of system in place, however, could present some substantial challenges. The government would have to find a way to overcome the lag time that exists in reporting individual income or run the risk of putting borrowers who lose their jobs in a pinch. And withholding could become complicated if the borrower has multiple jobs or is a contractor, said Asher of TICAS, which published its own paper on automatic enrollment.

“It takes away choice about how you want to make your payment and what that payment is going to be,” she said. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach to repayment.”

Meanwhile, Tibak is slowly trying to pay off his debt with his lower monthly payments.

“I have finally started moving forward the best I can,” Tibak said. “I don’t want to live in debt my entire life. And I won’t. Bad times don’t last forever.”

Read more from Get There:

Is graduate school worth the cost? Here’s how to know.

How to wipe out debt: ‘Make more than you spend. Invest the difference wisely.’

Tax filing season is on. (Thanks, Congress.)

Wells Fargo and Discover to offer student loan modifications

Americans owe more than a trillion dollars in student loan debt. Here's how to pay yours back faster — explained with dominoes. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Have questions about student financial aid? Send us your questions at