At the same time, the private loan industry, which would have collapsed without a government rescue last year, has begun lobbying aggressively to save a program that has generated giant profits with very little risk.
“The administration has decided that it wants to capture the profits of federal student loans,” said Kevin Bruns, executive director of America’s Student Loan Providers, a trade group that is fighting Mr. Obama’s plan.
To press its case, the nation’s largest student lender, Sallie Mae, has hired two prominent lobbyists, Tony Podesta, whose brother, John, led the Obama transition, and Jamie S. Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.
For lenders, the stakes are huge. Just last week, Sallie Mae reported that despite losing $213 million in 2008, it paid its chief executive more than $4.6 million in cash and stock and its vice chairman more than $13.2 million in cash and stock, including the use of a company plane. The company, which did not receive money under the $700 billion financial system bailout and is not subject to pay restrictions, also disbursed cash bonuses of up to $600,000 to other executives.
Sallie Mae said that executive compensation was lower in 2008 than 2007 and that the stock awards were worthless in the current market.
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Critics of the subsidized loan system, called the Federal Family Education Loan Program, say private lenders have collected hefty fees for decades on loans that are risk-free because the government guarantees repayment up to 97 percent. With the government directly or indirectly financing virtually all federal student loans because of the financial crisis, the critics say there is no reason to continue a program that was intended to inject private capital into the education lending system.
Under the subsidized loan program, the government pays lenders like Citigroup, Bank of America and Sallie Mae, with both the subsidy and the maximum interest rate for borrowers set by Congress. Students are steered to the government’s direct program or to outside lenders, depending on their school’s preference.
Private lenders say they still provide valuable service, marketing, customer relations, billing, default prevention and collection of delinquent loans. The lenders say the budget savings could be achieved without ending their role and are pushing to keep the system in place, including an arrangement approved by Congress last year by which they are paid to originate loans but can resell them to the government.
Martha Holler, a spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, said the company wanted a compromise. “To be clear, there are those who are fighting to preserve the historic financing structure for federal student loans,” she wrote in an e-mail message following up on a telephone interview. “Sallie Mae is not among them. In fact, we support constructive alternatives that would generate a similar level of taxpayer savings to achieve the administration’s important goals.”
Lenders are also emphasizing the jobs they provide.
Sallie Mae’s chief executive, Albert L. Lord, held a town-hall-style meeting last week at the company’s loan center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., with two Democrats, Senator Bob Casey and Representative Paul E. Kanjorski, to announce the return of 2,000 jobs that were sent overseas in 2007.
Mr. Lord, in his opening speech, insisted that Mr. Obama’s proposal offered new opportunities, but he said he would fight to keep the current system mostly intact.
“We can either meet or beat the budget savings that are in the president’s budget with the exact same system that we have got working now with maybe a few tweaks,” he said.
But to preserve a profitable role for private lenders and still achieve Mr. Obama’s savings seems extremely difficult if not impossible; initial projections put forward by Sallie Mae could reach only 82 percent of the president’s goal over five years.
Last year, to keep education financing from drying up, Congress expanded the government’s role, including the repurchase of loans, which Sallie Mae and some other lenders say should be mandatory going forward.
“When you add that all up, a very legitimate question to ask is why do we even need private lenders,” said Representative Timothy H. Bishop, Democrat of New York and a former provost of Southampton College.
For Mr. Bishop and many other education advocates, Mr. Obama’s plan to expand the existing direct loan program used by more than 1,500 schools is obvious and long overdue.
But the administration has a fight on its hands.