What is the equilibrium in higher education policy?

That is the topic of my Bloomberg column, here goes:

Critics of the policy see it as rewarding Democratic supporters and interest groups, including university faculty and administrators but most of all students. This perception, regardless of whether it’s true, will influence political behavior…

Republicans, when they hold political power, are likely to strike back. They may be more interested in draining the sector of revenue. The simplest way of doing this would be to limit tuition hikes in state universities. De facto tuition caps are already common, but they may become tighter and more explicit, especially in red and purple states. Such policies might also prove popular with voters, especially during a time of high inflation.

A second set of reforms might limit the ability of public universities to spend money on hiring more administrators, including people who work on so-called DEI issues. Given the fungibility of funds, and the ability of administrators to retitle new positions, such restrictions may not be entirely enforceable. Still, they would mean less autonomy for public universities as policy in many states tried to counteract their current leftward swing.

Another possible reform could tie funding for a school or major to the future earnings of graduates. That likely would penalize the humanities, which already tend to be one of the more politicized segments of the modern university…

Longer-term, a future Republican administration might decide to restructure the entire system of federal student loans. How about making student loans dischargeable through normal bankruptcy proceedings? That might sound like a pretty unremarkable idea to most voters, and many economists, including Larry Summers, favor it. It would also allow for some measure of debt relief without extending it to the solvent and the well-off.

Still, the long-term consequences of this reform would probably lead to a significant contraction of lending. Most enrolled students do not in fact finish college, and many of them end up with low net worth yet tens of thousands of dollars of debt. (By one estimate, the net worth of the median American below age 35 is $13,900.) So the incentives to declare bankruptcy could be relatively high. This would make federal student loans a more costly and less appealing proposition. Private lenders would be more wary as well. Higher education would likely contract.

The net effect of the president’s loan-forgiveness initiative — which is an executive order and thus does not have an enduring legislative majority behind it — could amount to a one-time benefit for students, no impact on rising educational costs, and the intensification of the culture wars over higher education.

Sad but true.


Comments for this post are closed