Luigi Zingales has a good op-ed on education in today’s NYTimes:
… scholars like me…work in the least competitive and most subsidized industry of all: higher education.
We criticize predatory loans by mortgage brokers, when student loans can be just as abusive. To avoid the next credit bubble and debt crisis, we need to eliminate government subsidies and link tuition financing to the incomes of college graduates…Just as subsidies for homeownership have increased the price of houses, so have education subsidies contributed to the soaring price of college.
…These subsidies also distort the credit market. Since the government guarantees student loans, lenders have no incentive to lend wisely. All the burden of making the right decision falls on the borrowers. Unfortunately, 18-year-olds aren’t particularly good at judging the profitability of an investment…
Last but not least, these subsidized loans keep afloat colleges that do not add much value for their students, preventing people from accumulating useful skills.
Instead of subsidies Zingales, drawing a page from Milton Friedman, proposes income-contingent loans.
Investors could finance students’ education with equity rather than debt. In exchange for their capital, the investors would receive a fraction of a student’s future income — or, even better, a fraction of the increase in her income that derives from college attendance. (This increase can be easily calculated as the difference between the actual income and the average income of high school graduates in the same area.)
As I wrote about earlier, Bill Clinton received a loan like this from Yale’s law school and later created a national program but it didn’t get very far (although Obama wants to expand the program). Australia, however, implemented an income contingent loan program in 1989. Australian students don’t pay anything for university when they attend but once their income reaches a certain threshold they are charged through the income tax system. Many other countries are experimenting with income contingent loans.
One point that Zingales doesn’t examine is adverse selection – an income-contingent loan will appeal most to people who want careers with low-income prospects, say in the non-profit sector. (Redistribution of this type was one of the reasons for the Yale law school program.) Thus, the program works best when incomes differ due to luck. My guess is that the adverse-selection problem can be handled if education venture capitalists are left free to price.