How Germany Limits Student Loan Debt

Berlin -- Those who follow student loan debt issues in the United States -- and that's about everyone now that this form of debt is being recognized as a major national problem -- may be interested in how another country limits such debt.

The major need-based student financial aid program in Germany, the Bafög, awards most aid in a fixed ratio: half grant, half loan. The loan portion carries no interest. It is repayable starting five years after the end of the aid eligibility; in other words, there is a five-year grace period, which can be extended under certain conditions such as child care. No borrower pays back more than 10,000 Euros in total, whether or not more was borrowed.

One advantage of the German practice of making aid half grant, half loan, is that the ratio cannot be manipulated by the institutions students attend. In the U.S., the ratio is badly out of balance in favor of loans. This is partly a function of insufficient Pell grant (discretionary) appropriations compared to Stafford loan (entitlement) spending, but it is also because many institutions routinely capture the Pell grants for themselves (often to make so-called "merit" aid to other students), thereby burdening financially needy students with even more loans.

Germany has no student debt crisis. It is worth mentioning that many U.S. institutions of higher education are modeled in their teaching and research missions after the University of Berlin, as created by the Humboldt brothers early in the nineteenth century. With regard to student debt, it is instructive to look once again at German experience.

Of course limiting student loan debt in the U.S. would entail significant cost, but it could be paid for by limiting (or eliminating) U.S. higher education tax credits and deductions, which total nearly $40 billion annually. Germany allows education fees and student loan interest payments to be tax deductible, but because such fees are low or nonexistent, and most loans are no-interest in the first place, the cost is comparatively minimal. One good reason to tap U.S. higher education tax credits and deductions in order to control student loan debt: much research shows the credits and deductions do not provide better higher education access as promised.