The typical student who borrows to attend college leaves with more than $30,000 in debt. Many struggle to keep up with their payments, and America’s ballooning tab for student loans — now $1.7 trillion, more than any other type of household debt except for mortgages — has become a political flash point.
So a financing approach known as an income-share agreement, which promises to eliminate unaffordable student debt by tying repayment to income, has obvious appeal. But a new study has found that income share agreements can also mask race-based inequalities.
The analysis, released on Thursday by the Student Borrower Protection Center, an advocacy group, found that borrowers at schools that focus on minority students can end up paying more than their peers at largely white campuses.
Income-share agreements are offered mainly by schools, although some private financiers have started marketing them directly to students. The selling point of such agreements is that, unlike loans, they don’t accumulate interest, and they come with both a predetermined repayment period and a cap on the total amount that the lender can seek as repayment. To students leery of accumulating educational debt that can snowball and stick around for decades, income-share agreements can offer a more flexible alternative.
Silicon Valley investors who are funding start-ups, as well as some policymakers. A growing number of colleges and vocational training programs are letting students finance some or all of their studies with such contracts. Purdue University was the first to offer them widely, starting in 2016. Private schools including Lackawanna College and Clarkson University have followed suit. Vemo Education, a venture that manages I.S.A. programs, said it has worked with 70 schools and training courses.
But the market is opaque and lightly regulated, making it challenging for borrowers to find the kind of consumer-protection disclosures that typically accompany financial products. Financiers are generally not required to reveal any information on how much money they have lent and how those deals have worked out for borrowers.
Student Borrower Protection Center researchers obtained data from the website of one private financier, Stride Funding in Dallas, and studied its agreements to illustrate how they can contain buried inequities. (Other companies that market the agreements directly to students include Align, Defynance and Lumni.)
Like most lenders in this market, Stride varies its repayment terms depending on the borrower’s earning potential. An English major typically will need to fork over a higher percentage of salary than an engineering student. (Stride caps its maximum repayment amount at two times the amount that was borrowed. Its contracts typically require recipients to make payments for five to seven years.)
repay 5.65 percent of their income for five years, according to a payment calculator on Stride’s website. But the same calculator showed that an economics student at Morehouse, an historically Black school in Atlanta, would be asked to repay 6.15 percent of their income.