Fox Business host Stuart Varney misleadingly claimed federal student loans are subsidized "at great cost to taxpayers," ignoring the fact that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that the federal student loan program will contribute more than $50 billion in revenue to the Treasury in 2013 alone.
Varney appeared on Fox & Friends July 18 to discuss a deal reached by a bipartisan group of senators to avert a short-term hike in the interest rates students pay for federally-subsidized loans. While Varney mentioned problems with the high cost of attending college and high levels of indebtedness among college graduates, he claimed the deal doesn't solve "the underlying problem which is we're subsidizing all of these loans at great cost to the taxpayer."
While the rising cost of college and high debt levels for graduates are a serious problem, the fact is according to the CBO subsidized student loans do not cost the federal government any money. On June 16, USA Today reported that the May 2013 CBO projection about the federal student loan program showed that the government could expect "a record $50 billion profit on student loans this year." Although the estimates for future years don't take into account the rates in the new deal, on July 18 USA Today also reported that the new Senate deal is "estimated to reduce the deficit by $715 million over the next decade."
A February post at The Wall Street Journal's Real Time Economics blog explained how the federal government makes a profit by subsidizing student loans:
One reason the government continues to make money off of the programs is that borrowers generally can't discharge student debt through bankruptcy, and the government can garnish wages, tax refunds and even Social Security payments to collect debt. That minimizes losses.
But there's another big factor: The government is borrowing at exceptionally low rates right now, while charging students higher rates to borrow.
The 10-year Treasury yield is currently hovering around 2%, up a bit from the historic lows hit in the last year. Meantime, the government is charging most student borrowers an interest rate of 6.8%, a rate set by Congress and which took effect in 2006. (Some borrowers are charged 3.4%, thanks to temporary subsidies approved by Congress in recent years.)
Thus the spread--the difference between the interest rate the government pays to borrow and what it charges to students--is unusually large right now.
The Washington Post's Wonkblog explained that some economists favor a different method of accounting that would include risk factors similar to private sector loans. Using this so-called "fair value" accounting method, the profits from the federal student loan program would vary by year with some years resulting in deficit and others in surplus. However, even according to this different analysis, in 2013 the program is still projected to result in profit.
Democrats such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have criticized the federal government for ever making a profit from indebted college graduates, arguing that the program is a public good, but that doesn't give Varney license to mislead in this debate.