Federal Student Loans:

Education Needs to Verify Borrowers' Information for Income-Driven Repayment Plans

GAO-19-347: Published: Jun 25, 2019. Publicly Released: Jul 25, 2019.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Melissa Emrey-Arras
(617) 788-0534
emreyarrasm@gao.gov

 

Seto J. Bagdoyan
(202) 512-6722
bagdoyans@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

To ease the burden of federal student loans, borrowers can apply for Income-Driven Repayment plans. The plans use borrowers' taxable income and family size to determine an affordable payment rate. Monthly payments can be as low as $0 and still count toward potential loan forgiveness after the repayment period.

Our recommendations are for the Department of Education to do more to verify borrowers' income and family size because of potential error or fraud:

More than 76,000 borrowers making no monthly payments may have had enough income to pay something

More than 35,000 borrowers had approved plans with atypical family sizes of 9 or more

How family size affects payment amounts in some Income-Driven Repayment plans for a borrower with $40,000 in taxable income

Graphic showing that a single borrower's payment would be $182 but decreases to $74 with a family of 3 and $0 with a family of 5

Graphic showing that a single borrower's payment would be $182 but decreases to $74 with a family of 3 and $0 with a family of 5

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Melissa Emrey-Arras
(617) 788-0534
emreyarrasm@gao.gov

 

Seto J. Bagdoyan
(202) 512-6722
bagdoyans@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

GAO identified indicators of potential fraud or error in income and family size information for borrowers with approved Income-Driven Repayment (IDR) plans. IDR plans base monthly payments on a borrower's income and family size, extend repayment periods from the standard 10 years to up to 25 years, and forgive remaining balances at the end of that period.

Zero income. About 95,100 IDR plans were held by borrowers who reported zero income yet potentially earned enough wages to make monthly student loan payments. This analysis is based on wage data from the National Directory of New Hires (NDNH), a federal dataset that contains quarterly wage data for newly hired and existing employees. According to GAO's analysis, 34 percent of these plans were held by borrowers who had estimated annual wages of $45,000 or more, including some with estimated annual wages of $100,000 or more. Borrowers with these 95,100 IDR plans owed nearly $4 billion in outstanding Direct Loans as of September 2017.

Family size. About 40,900 IDR plans were approved based on family sizes of nine or more, which were atypical for IDR plans. Almost 1,200 of these 40,900 plans were approved based on family sizes of 16 or more, including two plans for different borrowers that were approved using a family size of 93. Borrowers with atypical family sizes of nine or more owed almost $2.1 billion in outstanding Direct Loans as of September 2017.

These results indicate some borrowers may have misrepresented or erroneously reported their income or family size. Because income and family size are used to determine IDR monthly payments, fraud or errors in this information can result in the Department of Education (Education) losing thousands of dollars of loan repayments per borrower each year and potentially increasing the ultimate cost of loan forgiveness. Where appropriate, GAO is referring these results to Education for further investigation.

Weaknesses in Education's processes to verify borrowers' income and family size information limit its ability to detect potential fraud or error in IDR plans. While borrowers applying for IDR plans must provide proof of taxable income, such as tax returns or pay stubs, Education generally accepts borrower reports of zero income and borrower reports of family size without verifying the information. Although Education does not currently have access to federal sources of data to verify borrower reports of zero income, the department could pursue such access or obtain private data sources for this purpose. In addition, Education has not systematically implemented other data analytic practices, such as using data it already has to detect anomalies in income and family size that may indicate potential fraud or error. Although data matching and analytic practices may not be sufficient to detect fraud or error, combining them with follow-up procedures to verify information on IDR applications could help Education reduce the risk of using fraudulent or erroneous information to calculate monthly loan payments, and better protect the federal investment in student loans.

Why GAO Did This Study

As of September 2018, almost half of the $859 billion in outstanding federal Direct Loans was being repaid by borrowers using IDR plans. Prior GAO work found that while these plans may ease the burden of student loan debt, they can carry high costs for the federal government.

This report examines (1) whether there are indicators of potential fraud or error in income and family size information provided by borrowers on IDR plans and (2) the extent to which Education verifies this information. GAO obtained Education data on borrowers with IDR plans approved from January 1, 2016 through September 30, 2017, the most recent data available, and assessed the risk for fraud or error in IDR plans for Direct Loans by (1) matching Education IDR plan data for a subset of borrowers who reported zero income with wage data from NDNH for the same time period and (2) analyzing Education IDR plan data on borrowers' family sizes. In addition, GAO reviewed relevant IDR policies and procedures from Education and interviewed officials from Education.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that Education (1) obtain data to verify income information for borrowers who report zero income on IDR plan applications, (2) implement data analytic practices and follow-up procedures to verify borrower reports of zero income, and (3) implement data analytic practices and follow-up procedures to verify borrowers' family size. Education generally agreed with our recommendations.

For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or emreyarrasm@gao.gov and Seto J. Bagdoyan at (202) 512-6722 or bagdoyans@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: Education generally agreed with this recommendation. Education stated that the President's fiscal year 2020 budget request includes a proposal that Congress pass legislation allowing the IRS to disclose tax return information directly to the department for the purpose of administering certain federal student financial aid programs. According to the agency, such legislation, if enacted, would allow borrowers to more easily certify their income on an annual basis to maintain enrollment in IDR plans, and allow the department to use the information to mitigate improper payments to borrowers as a result of misreported income data. Education also stated that in the meantime, it would explore whether commercially available data are sufficient in terms of scope, reliability, and cost effectiveness. Given that there are existing actions Education can take to implement our recommendation, we believe our recommendation is appropriate. Moreover, we believe that Education is best positioned to determine whether the proposal, if enacted, would address our recommendation, or if it would need to be expanded or modified in order to do so.

    Recommendation: The Chief Operating Officer of Federal Student Aid should obtain data in order to verify income information for borrowers reporting zero income on IDR applications. For example, Education could pursue access to federal data sources or obtain access to an appropriate private data source. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Education: Office of Federal Student Aid

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: Education agreed with this recommendation, stating that it would develop data analytic practices to verify borrower reports of zero income contingent upon the enactment of legislation providing the department with access to federal income data. However, implementing this recommendation does not necessarily require Education to wait for such legislation. Our draft report describes data analytic practices, such as anomaly detection, which Education could implement using its own data to identify deviations from expected patterns in data over time. Education also stated that it plans to develop additional follow-up procedures to verify borrower reports of zero income, such as requiring borrowers to substantiate reports of zero income with appropriate documentation. In addition, Education described plans to formalize procedures to make referrals to Education's Office of Inspector General or the Department of Justice for suspected cases of IDR fraud. We encourage Education to combine its follow-up procedures with data analytic practices to satisfy the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Chief Operating Officer of Federal Student Aid should implement data analytic practices, such as data matching, and follow-up procedures to review and verify that borrowers reporting zero income on IDR applications do not have sources of taxable income at the time of their application. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Education: Office of Federal Student Aid

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Education agreed with this recommendation, noting that this information could be subject to misrepresentation or erroneous reporting by borrowers. Education stated that it would review various data points that can be used to select IDR applications and certifications for additional review prior to approval, such as providing more scrutiny when borrowers report unusual increases in family size from one year to the next. The agency also stated that it plans to formalize additional procedures to require certain borrowers to substantiate their family size. For example, Education will consider requiring IDR applicants to provide statements listing each household member and how they are related to the borrower.

    Recommendation: The Chief Operating Officer of Federal Student Aid should implement data analytic practices, such as data mining, and follow-up procedures to review and verify family size entries in IDR borrower applications. For example, Education could review and verify all borrower reports of family size or a subset identified as being most susceptible to fraud or error. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Education: Office of Federal Student Aid

 

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