How Australia Gets Student Loans Right – By Helene Olen NOV. 12 2015 7:53 PM


Student loan debt doesn’t have to be overwhelming—and it isn’t in many other places. Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Images by Burlingham/Shutterstock and irin-k/Shutterstock.

Student loan debt doesn’t have to be overwhelming—and it isn’t in many other places.
Photo illustration by Sofya Levina. Images by Burlingham/Shutterstock and irin-k/Shutterstock.

Graduate from college this year? Congratulations! If you borrowed money, you likely need to pay back more than $35,000. Just how bad is that? Well, the average American with credit-card debt owes less than half that amount. Perhaps that’s why MyBankTracker recently discovered 30 percent of those they polled would agree to sell an organ in order to pay off their student loan bills.

Good luck getting started in the world with that amount of debt—one reason why many economists believe millennials aren’t buying homes or cars at the same age their parents did.

It doesn’t have to be this way—and it isn’t in many other places. Let’s visit Australia, where politicians congratulated themselves this week for closing down what they considered a major loophole in the nation’s student loan program: scofflaws moving abroad to escape the automatic salary deductions of the nation’s income-based student loan program. “You should have to repay that debt,” thundered Simon Birmingham, the nation’s education minister.

But that’s still not true for everyone. Earn less than $54,000 Australian dollars—that’s about $38,000 in the United States—and you have no worries, at least for now and maybe not forever.

So the United States:

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at Nov 13, 2015 12.54

Australia offers students an income-based student loan plan, and has since 1989, when the system was set up to compensate for the fact that universities were charging tuition at all. That was a change. Higher education had been free in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, there are two ways Aussies can choose to finance their college educations. If they pay up front, they get a 10 percent discount. Most don’t do that, however. That’s where where Australia’s income-based repayment plan comes in.

Australians borrow money from the government through the Higher Education Loan Program (or HELP—get it?) and related offshoots. When it comes time to repay the bill, the monthly amount has nothing to do with the sum borrowed. Instead, debtors earning more than AU$54,000 ($38,000) pay between 4 and 8 percent of their income, depending on how much they take home annually. Unemployment or illness? Salary falls under the minimum earnings required for repayment? No worries. Payments temporarily cease, with no interest or penalties accruing to the borrower.

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