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《经济学人》下任美国总统如何解决学生债务问题

2020 年 03 月 02 日 • 经济学人,Leaders

本期经济学人杂志【Leaders】板块下题为《How the next president should fix America’s student-loan problem》的文章美国关注的是日益庞大的学生债务问题,以及目前的总统候选人对解决该问题所提出的方案。

The Economist, February 22nd-28th 2020.

目前美国的总学生债务高达 1.5 万亿美元,这要比大多数国家的全国借款总额还要多。日益增长的学生债务也时常被当作是危机前兆的证据。

但文章认为学生总债务的增长并非真正问题所在,因为这主要反映了法律专业等研究生债务的上升,且 92% 的学生债务的债权人是联邦政府,即使发生违约也不会影响金融市场。问题的关键在于 1,100 万美国人(许多是穷人、非白人以及受骗接受无价值的学位教育的人)很难偿还适量的债务。

针对这个问题,民主党总统候选人纷纷出招,其中,桑德斯和沃伦主张全部取消或部分取消学生债务,而拜登和布伦伯格主张的是一种把现有和新增的本科学生债务的偿还额与他们的收入相挂钩的方案。这种方案下政府会设定一个与收入相关的最低偿还比例,贷款人每年只需将他们收入中的一部分用来偿还贷款。

文章认为拜登和布伦伯格提出方案是解决问题的最好办法,该方案也是经济学人杂志The Economist一直主张支持的,这种学生债务偿还机制在英国实施得很好。

虽然美国目前针对贫困人士也在实施这种偿还机制,但却存在以下几方面的不足:

  • 政府设定的需要开始偿还时的收入门槛太低,大约 18,000 美元,而在英国则为 34,000 美元;
  • 政府放给学生的 6% 贷款利率太高,高得很不合理;
  • 行政手续多而繁琐,如每年都需要填表以避免处罚等。
  • 如果借款人 20 或 25 年后仍未偿清贷款,贷款就会被免除,但仍需征税。

而拜登和布伦伯格都主张贷款采用自动登记,把偿还额占收入的比重从 10% 降到 5%(这一比例比英国还要低),同时降低贷款利率。此外,拜登还主张将需要开始偿还时的收入门槛提高到 25,000 美元,并对过期免除的债务免税。

文章还认为,除了减轻学生贷款偿还负担外,美国政府还应当取缔那些低劣的、盈利性学院,这些机构的收入完全依赖联邦政府的学生贷款,收取的费用非常高,还积极推销自己。

文章最后认为,虽然美国政府通过贷款形式帮助学生接受高等教育的初衷是好的,但如果学生毕业后无法偿还贷款,那最终会由纳税人埋单,美国政府的好心政策没收到好的效果。

How the next president should fix America’s student-loan problem

Getting the maths right
How the next president should fix America’s student-loan problem

The Bloomberg and Biden plans are the best on offer

Leaders
Feb 20th 2020 edition
Feb 20th 2020

AMERICA’S TOTAL student debt, at over $1.5trn, is larger than the national borrowing of most countries. It has quintupled in size since 2004, overtaking both borrowing on credit cards and car finance. This growth is often presented as evidence of a crisis. But the rise in total debt, though arresting, is not the real problem. It largely reflects increased borrowing by graduate students, such as budding lawyers, who will go on to be high earners. And 92% of student debt is owed to the federal government, meaning defaults pose no risk to the financial system (see article). The real problem is that 11m Americans, many poor and non-white, and many duped into studying for worthless degrees, struggle to repay even modest debts.

Some Democratic candidates for president seem not to know this. Bernie Sanders, the front-runner, wants to cancel all student debt—a handout that would indeed provide relief to those who are struggling, but would also offer an enormous windfall to the well-off. Elizabeth Warren would cancel all debt up to $50,000, a policy that is similarly indiscriminate. Thankfully Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg, who announced his student-debt policy on February 18th, have plans that are better suited to the problem.

Messrs Biden and Bloomberg want to put all existing and new borrowers for undergraduate degrees into an income-linked repayment scheme, under which borrowers must repay only a fraction of their annual earnings above a certain threshold. The Economist has long argued in favour of such a repayment mechanism, which works well in Britain. Linking repayments to income makes it impossible to be impoverished by student debt, and frees graduates to take risks early in their careers.

America already has income-linked repayment schemes for distressed borrowers, but they are flawed. The earnings thresholds at which repayments begin are too low: typically around $18,000, compared with £26,000 ($34,000) in Britain. The interest rates, which are typically around 6%, are unjustifiably high for borrowing from the government. And the schemes are an administrative nightmare. Students must choose from one of four options and fill out new paperwork every year to avoid penalties. Any outstanding debt is forgiven after 20 or 25 years, but debt-forgiveness is taxable, putting struggling debtors at the mercy of the Internal Revenue Service.

By enrolling everyone automatically, Mr Biden’s and Mr Bloomberg’s plans would greatly improve the status quo. Both would cut repayments from 10% of income above the threshold to 5%, less even than in the British system. Mr Biden would raise the repayment threshold to $25,000 and make all debt forgiveness tax-free. Mr Bloomberg would forgive debt that was incurred at failed or predatory for-profit universities and exempt debt forgiveness up to $57,000 from tax. Both candidates should also consider cutting the high rate of interest.

Making student loans less onerous for borrowers is only half of the remedy, however. Congress should also clamp down on low-quality, for-profit colleges. These institutions depend almost entirely on federal student loans for their revenues, charge the highest possible prices and market themselves aggressively. When students graduate and cannot repay their debts, the taxpayer foots the bill. Barack Obama’s White House tried to rein these colleges in, but Donald Trump’s has loosened the rules. All the Democratic candidates recognise this problem. Republicans are supposed to be suspicious of feeding frenzies at the government trough, but they are in denial.

A reform agenda might also include the federal government’s lending to graduate students. Unlike that to undergraduates, this is unlimited. Though not a large source of debt distress, it may be fuelling a pointless and costly arms race among the affluent. Governments have a part in helping finance higher education, but well-meaning policy can often go badly wrong.■

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "Getting the maths right"

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