Turbo Taxing Student Loans

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The federal government is partnering with Intuit Inc., makers of Turbo Tax, to help publicize and raise the consciousness of student loan borrowers about repayment options.

The U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Treasury and Intuit Inc. announced January 24 that they will work together to make consumers more knowledgeable about income-driven repayment plans. These permit borrowers to repay their student loans using a sliding income scale. Monthly payments will be adjusted in relation to income and family size.

During tax filing season, roughly from February 1 to April 15, Intuit will feature a banner in its TurboTax Online tax preparation software announcing options for repaying federal student loans. The banner will link to the Department of Education's (ED) online Repayment Estimator, where people can determine if they qualify for an income-driven repayment plan. They can also sign up for an income-driven or other repayment plan.

Both the Treasury Department and Education Department will have a message on the back of tax refund checks envelopes about federal student loan repayment options. Approximately 25 million of these envelopes will be mailed to tax filers in the 2014 tax season, according to the ED.

"As student loan borrowers file their taxes this year, I'm pleased that many of them will have an opportunity to determine if they can lower their monthly student loan payments through an income-driven repayment plan," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. "Too many borrowers are struggling to pay back their student loans, which is why this collaboration aimed at sharing information about income-driven repayment plans is so important. Building on ongoing outreach efforts, the Administration will continue to work to ensure that borrowers are aware of their options that can help them responsibly manage their student loan debt."

Since 2009, federal student loan borrowers not in default have been able to enroll in modified repayment plans. These plans cap their monthly payments as a percentage of their current discretionary income if their payments are made on time. They can also extend the repayments terms to 20 or 25 years with a write-off provision at the end of the repayment period.

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law an income-driven plan for federal student loan debtors capping repayments at 10% of discretionary income for students who begin borrowing July 1, 2014. Then, last October, the Obama made the lower cap available to more borrowers by the end of 2012.

The ED started the publicity campaign to prevent defaults. Resources are now available to equip financial aid counselors with helpful materials, and targeted emails are sent to those who may benefit from modified repayment plans but are unaware of their availability.

Will this private-public sector partnership actually benefit student loan borrowers? The people at Intuit and the Obama administration are quite enthusiastic as are others.

"It's good to know that this popular tax-preparation site will carry a government message encouraging borrowers to sign up for an income-based repayment plan," said Claire Law, a certified educational planner who owns academic advisory firm Educational Avenues.

But some believe it to be a gimmick, perpetuating an already flawed policy of government finance of higher education.

"Instead of making it easier for students, who probably shouldn't have borrowed for college -- or even gone at all -- to pay for their folly, the government should be getting out of college finance," said George Leef, director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh. This gimmick merely keeps the bubble expanding a while longer."

--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet

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