the three student loan crises
Among higher ed policy folks, there’s a counter-conventional wisdom that there is no student loan crisis. For the most part (the story goes), student loans are a good investment that will increase future wages, and students could borrow quite a bit more before the value of the debt might be called into question. Indeed, some have argued that many students are too reluctant to borrow, and should take on more debt.
Just this month, two new pieces came out that reiterate this counter-narrative: a book by Urban Institute economist Sandy Baum, and a report by the Council of Economic Advisers. Yes, everyone agrees the system’s not perfect, and tweaks need to be made. (Susan Dynarski, for example, argues that repayment periods need to be longer.) Fundamentally, though, the system is sound. Or so goes the story.
What can we make of this disconnect between the conventional wisdom—that we are in the throes of a student loan crisis—and this counter-conventional story?
To understand it, it’s worth thinking about three different student loan crises. Or “crises”, depending on your sympathies.
First, there’s the student who has accrued six figures of debt for an undergraduate degree. Ideally, for media purposes, this is a degree in women’s studies, art history, or some other easily-dismissible field. The New York Times specialized in these for a while.
Since student loan debt is not bankruptable, these people really are kind of screwed, although income-based-repayment options have improved their options somewhat. And they make for a dramatic story—as well as lots of moralizing in the comments.
Second, there’s the student who took on debt but didn’t finish a degree. These people often struggle, because their income doesn’t go up much, if at all. In fact, the highest default rates are among those who left school with the smallest debts (< $5000), presumably because they didn’t graduate.
These folks disproportionately attend for-profit institutions, whose degrees have less payoff anyhow, but even more importantly, have abysmal graduation rates. (Community colleges have low graduation rates too, but they’re a lot cheaper.) The debt-but-no-degree people are also kind of screwed, although again, income-based repayment plans can help them a lot, as would a bankruptcy option.
So we’ve got the crisis of people who borrow too much for a four-year degree, and the crisis of people who borrow a little, but don’t complete the degree, often because they’re attending a school whose entire business model is to sign up new students for the purpose of taking their loan money.
These are both problems—even “crises”—but they are solvable. For the first, cap federal loans (including PLUS access) for undergraduate degrees, and make all loans bankruptable, so private lenders are leerier of loaning large amounts to students.
For the second—well, I’d probably be comfortable eliminating aid to for-profits, but let’s say that’s beyond the political pale. Certainly we could place a lot more limitations on which institutions are eligible for federal aid, whether that’s tied to graduation rates, default rates, or some other measure. And, again, making student loans bankruptable would help people who really needed to get a fresh start.
Wait, so what’s the third crisis?
The thing is, these two “crises” may be devastating to individuals, but in societal terms aren’t that big. The six-figure-debt one really drives policy wonks crazy, because every student debt story in the last ten years has led with this person, but the percentage of students who finish four-year degrees with this many loans is very small. Like maybe a couple of percent of borrowers small.*
Proponents of the Counter-Conventional Wisdom (C-CW) take the second group—those who borrow but don’t finish a degree—more seriously. This group is often really hurting, despite having smaller loan balances. But they only make up perhaps 20% of borrowers, and since their balances are relatively low, an even smaller fraction of that $1.4 trillion student loan figure we hear so much about.**
The real question—the one that determines whether you think there’s a third crisis—is how you react to the other 75-80% of borrowers. The C-CW crowd looks at them and says, eh, no crisis. These folks come out with four-year degrees, $20 or $30,000 of government-issued student loan debt, will pay $300 a month or so for ten years, and then move on with their lives. We could argue about how much of a burden this is for them, but it’s clearly not a crisis in the same way it is for the NYU grad with $150k in loans, or for the Capella University dropout trying to pay back $7500 on $10 an hour.
This C-CW is based on the premise that 1) college is a human capital investment that is worth taking on debt for up to the expected economic payoff, 2) individual borrowing is a reasonable and appropriate way to finance this investment—indeed, more sensible than paying for the costs collectively—and 3) as long as debt is kept to a “manageable” level (as indicated by students not going into default and having access to forbearance when their income is low), then there’s no crisis.
Why this understates the problem
I take issue with this position, though, on at least three fronts.
1. “Typical” student debt is increasing .
Individual borrowing levels are still rising rapidly, and there’s no reason to think we’ve neared a max. A recent Washington Post editorial cited the CEA report as saying that “[t]he average undergraduate loan burden in 2015 was $17,900.” But that’s not what the average graduate holds. That’s what the average loan-holder holds, including those who have already been paying for a number of years. Estimates for the average 2016 graduate, by contrast, are considerably higher—in the $29,000 to $37,000 range—and growing. The fraction of all students who borrow also continues to increase.
College costs keep rising. State budgets are still under pressure. The penalties for not completing college keep increasing. We can only expect loan sizes to continue to go up. At what point does “reasonable borrowing” become “unreasonable burden”? And tweaks like expanding income-based repayment or extending the standard repayment period won’t bend the curve (to borrow from another debate)—if anything it will enable the further expansion of lending.
2. We are all Capella now.
These debates often overlook the effects of federal aid policy on colleges as organizations, something I’ve written about elsewhere. (The exception is the attention given to the Bennett hypothesis, which suggests that colleges will simply turn federal aid into higher tuition prices.)
But that doesn’t mean organizational effects don’t exist. Continuing to shift the cost burden to individual students is going to accelerate the already intense pressure on public colleges in particular to recruit and retain students, because with students come tuition dollars.
The drive to attract students is already undermining a lot of traditional values in higher education. It encourages schools to spend money on marketing and branding, rather than education. It promotes a consumerist mindset among students who quite reasonably feel that they have become customers. It encourages schools to develop low-value degree programs simply to generate revenue, and recruit students into them regardless of whether the students will benefit.
The values that limit colleges from doing kind of thing are what separates nonprofits from for-profits in the first place. If they go away, we all become Capella. And allowing “reasonable” lending to keep expanding moves us straight in that direction.
3. It gives up on actual public education.
Ultimately, though, the biggest problem I have with this position is that it concedes the possibility, or even the value, of real public higher education entirely. It doesn’t matter whether that’s because the C-CW sees it as a pipe dream, or because it sees it as an irrational use of public funds, since individuals benefit personally from their education in the long run.
This post is already too long, so I won’t go into a detailed defense of public higher ed here. But I do want to point out that if you accept the premise of the C-CW—that student loan debt will only become a crisis if it increases individual costs beyond the returns to a college degree—you’ve already given up on public higher education. I’m not ready to do that.
And it looks like I’m not the only one.
* This number is actually surprisingly difficult to find. In 2008, it was only 0.2% of undergrad completers, but average debt for new graduates has increased about 40% since then, so the six-figure camp has undoubtedly grown.
** Again, exact numbers hard to pin down. 15% of beginning students who borrowed from the government in 2003-04 had not completed a degree six years later, nor were they still enrolled. This figure has doubtless increased as nontraditional borrowers—who are less likely to finish—have become a bigger fraction of the total pool of borrowers, hence my 20% guesstimate.