Obama researchers: Emails encourage student loan borrowers to pay up

By Amy R. Connolly  |  Sept. 23, 2015 at 12:32 PM
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WASHINGTON , Sept. 23 (UPI) -- White House scientists have uncovered the secret to getting millions of student loan borrowers to repay their debt -- a simple email.

The Obama administration's new Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, a research squad aimed at applying behavioral economics and psychology to federal policies and programs, found a simple email to federal student-loan borrowers can boost repayments and expand programs aimed at halting loan default. Researchers found Americans are more likely to participate in programs that are easy to use and present information clearly.

In their first report, the team found the emails to borrowers who have missed their first payment fractionally increase payments from 2.7 percent to 3.5 percent, for a nearly 30 percent bump.

The scientists found three months later the percentage of borrowers who made payments increased from 16 percent to 16.6 percent.

"While the effects of a single email were small in absolute terms, the effects indicate that low-cost email notices and reminders can be an effective tool for promoting payment among some borrowers who fall behind," the study found.

About 43 million Americans owe an estimated $1.2 trillion in student loan debt. Of that, about $103 billion is in default. Many graduates say they can't afford the high monthly payments and some have even opted not to pay as a form of protest.

White House researchers also found emails informing borrowers about income-driven repayment programs markedly increased program applicants. The team sent out informational emails about IDR programs to more than 800,000 borrowers who had fallen behind on their payments. The emails were sent in two waves, spaced three weeks apart.

"[Income-driven repayment] application rates were four times higher among borrowers who had been sent an email than among those who had not yet been sent an email," researchers found. "In order for these plans to have their intended impact, borrowers need to know IDR plans exist, understand the associated options and tradeoffs, and determine whether these plans are a good fit for them."

Using behavioral sciences to get and keep student loan borrowers on track may seem a bit curious, but President Obama has a track record for using it to his favor. During his 2012 run for president, Obama unleashed a team of social scientists to build a database with names of millions of undecided voters and potential supporters. He also had a panel of unpaid advisors, calling itself the "consortium of behavioral scientists," or COBS, provide ideas on how to counter false rumors.

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