Social Security Offsets:

Improvements to Program Design Could Better Assist Older Student Loan Borrowers with Obtaining Permitted Relief

GAO-17-45: Published: Dec 19, 2016. Publicly Released: Dec 20, 2016.

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What GAO Found

Older borrowers (age 50 and older) who default on federal student loans and must repay that debt with a portion of their Social Security benefits often have held their loans for decades and had about 15 percent of their benefit payment withheld. This withholding is called an offset. GAO's analysis of characteristics of student loan debt using data from the Departments of Education (Education), Treasury, and the Social Security Administration (SSA) from fiscal years 2001-2015 showed that for older borrowers subject to offset for the first time, about 43 percent had held their student loans for 20 years or more. In addition, three-quarters of these older borrowers had taken loans only for their own education, and most owed less than $10,000 at the time of their initial offset. Older borrowers had a typical monthly offset that was slightly more than $140, and almost half of them were subject to the maximum possible reduction, equivalent to 15 percent of their Social Security benefit. In fiscal year 2015, more than half of the almost 114,000 older borrowers who had such offsets were receiving Social Security disability benefits rather than Social Security retirement income.

In fiscal year 2015, Education collected about $4.5 billion on defaulted student loan debt, of which about $171 million—less than 10 percent—was collected through Social Security offsets. More than one-third of older borrowers remained in default 5 years after becoming subject to offset, and some saw their loan balances increase over time despite offsets. However, nearly one-third of older borrowers were able to pay off their loans or cancel their debt by obtaining relief through a process known as a total and permanent disability (TPD) discharge, which is available to borrowers with a disability that is not expected to improve.

GAO identified a number of effects on older borrowers resulting from the design of the offset program and associated options for relief from offset. First, older borrowers subject to offsets increasingly receive benefits below the federal poverty guideline. Specifically, many older borrowers subject to offset have their Social Security benefits reduced below the federal poverty guideline because the threshold to protect benefits—implemented by regulation in 1998—is not adjusted for costs of living (see figure below). In addition, borrowers who have a total and permanent disability may be eligible for a TPD discharge, but they must comply with annual documentation requirements that are not clearly and prominently stated. If annual documentation to verify income is not submitted, a loan initially approved for a TPD discharge can be reinstated and offsets resume.

Impact of Offsets on Older Borrowers' Social Security Benefits

Impact of Offsets on Older Borrowers' Social Security Benefits

Why GAO Did This Study

An increasing number of older Americans have defaulted on their federal student loans, which are administered by Education, and have a portion of their Social Security retirement or disability benefits withheld above a minimum benefit threshold to repay this debt. Given that Social Security is the primary source of income for many older Americans, GAO was asked to review these withholdings, known as offsets.

GAO examined: (1) characteristics of student loan debt held by older borrowers subject to offset and the effect on their Social Security benefit; (2) the amount of debt collected by Education through offsets and the typical outcomes for older borrowers; and (3) effects on older borrowers resulting from the program design of relief options. GAO examined data from fiscal years 2001 through 2015 from Education's National Student Loan Data System and other administrative data from Treasury and SSA. GAO also examined aggregated data provided by Education and Treasury, reviewed documentation, and interviewed agency officials about Education's processes for providing relief from offset.

What GAO Recommends

GAO suggests that Congress consider adjusting Social Security offset provisions to reflect the increased cost of living. GAO is also making five recommendations to Education, including that it clarify documentation requirements for permitted relief resulting from disability. Education generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Allison Bawden at (202) 512-7215 or bawdena@gao.gov.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we obtain information on actions taken by the Congress, we will a update.

    Matter: To preserve the balance between the importance of repaying federal student loan debt and protecting a minimum level of Social Security benefits put in place by the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996, Congress should consider modifying Social Security administrative offset provisions, such as by authorizing the Department of the Treasury to annually index the amount of Social Security benefits exempted from administrative offset to reflect changes in the cost of living over time.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Education does not currently notify borrowers of the suspension of offset, but plans to implement a process to do so in the future using a new mailing sent to affected borrowers by their default servicer. The current budget situation does not allow for this type of enhancement, and it is not clear when that will change. In the interim, the agency is exploring alternative notification approaches that could be put in place prior to the implementation of an automated solution. We will monitor the agency's progress.

    Recommendation: To improve program design for Social Security offsets and related relief options, the Secretary of Education should inform affected borrowers of the suspension of offset and potential consequences if the borrower does not take action to apply for a TPD discharge. Such information could include notification that interest continues to accrue and that offsets may resume once their disability benefits are converted to retirement benefits.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Education stated that the current Office of Management and Budget (OMB) TPD-Post discharge forms contain the recommended language in the first bullet of the Earned Income Section. In order to more clearly provide this information they recommended that the new OMB form, which is in its public comment period, (1) use a larger font size for the form and (2) use "plain language." GAO will consider closing this recommendation when the agency has completed this effort.

    Recommendation: To improve program design for Social Security offsets and related relief options, the Secretary of Education should revise forms sent to borrowers already approved for a TPD discharge to clearly and prominently state that failure to provide annual income verification documentation during the 3-year monitoring period will result in loan reinstatement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Education stated that over the next six months, they are committed to working with SSA to determine the feasibility and benefits of implementing an automated income verification process. The verification will address both the legal authority to implement such a process as well as operational and budgetary feasibility. We will monitor the agency's progress.

    Recommendation: To improve program design for Social Security offsets and related relief options, the Secretary of Education should evaluate the feasibility and benefits of implementing an automated income verification process, including determining whether the agency has the necessary legal authority to implement such a process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Education agrees with the recommendation and said that they will include this change in upcoming revisions to the agency's web content. The agency reported that the Notice of Offset to borrowers is sent by Treasury and that they will share this recommendation with Treasury and discuss possible changes to the notice. We will consider closing this recommendation when the agency has completed this effort.

    Recommendation: To improve program design for Social Security offsets and related relief options, the Secretary of Education should inform borrowers about the financial hardship exemption option and application process on the agency's website, as well as the notice of offset sent to borrowers.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Education reported that it plans plan to fully automate their process for tracking hardships and other exceptions from offset. However, due to competing priorities and funding limitations, full implementation of these improvements have not been scheduled. As they fully implement this process, they will review complementary strategies to assist borrowers in complying with annual reporting requirements. We will monitor the agency's progress.

    Recommendation: To improve program design for Social Security offsets and related relief options, the Secretary of Education should implement an annual review process to ensure that only eligible borrowers are exempted from offset for financial hardship on an ongoing basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

 

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