Taxing Mechanical Engineers and Subsidizing Drama Majors

In The Student Loan Giveaway is Much Bigger Than You Think I argued that the Biden student loan plan would incentivize students to take on more debt and incentivize schools to raise tuition with most of the increased costs being passed on to taxpayers through generous income based repayment plans. Adam Looney at Brookings takes a deep dive into the IDR plan and concludes that it’s even worse than I thought. Here are some of Looney’s key points:

  • As recently as 2017, CBO projected that student loan borrowers would, on average, repay close to $1.11 per dollar they borrowed (including interest). Borrowing was often perceived to be the least favorable way to pay for college. But under the administration’s IDR proposal (and other regulatory changes), undergraduate borrowers who enroll in the plan might be expected to pay approximately $0.50 for each $1 borrowed—and some can reliably expect to pay zero. As a result, borrowing will be the best way to pay for college. If there’s a chance you’ll not need to repay all of the loan—and it’s likely that a majority of undergraduate students will be in that boat—it will be a financial no-brainer to take out the maximum student loan.
  • The data shows that roughly half of Americans with some college experience but not a BA would qualify for zero payments under the proposal, as would about 25% of BA graduates. However, the vast majority of students (including more than 80% of BA recipients) would qualify for reduced payments.
  •  [A] lot of student debt represents borrowing for living expenses, and thus a sizable share of the value of loans forgiven under the IDR proposal will be for such expenses…A graduate student at Columbia University can borrow $30,827 each year for living expenses, personal expenses, and other costs above and beyond how much they borrow for tuition. A significant number of those graduates can expect those borrowed amounts to be forgiven. That means that the federal government will pay twice as much to subsidize the rent of a Columbia graduate student than it will for a low-income individual under the Section 8 housing voucher program…

Looney agrees that the incentive to increase tuition will apply to some graduate and professional programs but he thinks there is less room to increase tuition at undergraduate programs because borrowing is capped (currently! AT) at fairly low rates. But he offers an even more plausible but disheartening scenario that takes us in exactly the wrong direction.

Because the IDR subsidy is based primarily on post-college earnings, programs that leave students without a degree or that don’t lead to a good job will get a larger subsidy. Students at good schools and high-return programs will be asked to repay their loans nearly in full. Want a free ride to college? You can have one, but only if you study cosmetology, liberal arts, or drama, preferably at a for-profit school. Want to be a nurse, an engineer, or major in computer science or math? You’ll have to pay full price (especially at the best programs in each field). This is a problem because most student outcomes—both bad and good—are highly predictable based on the quality, value, completion rate, and post-graduation earnings of the program attended. IDR can work if designed well, but this IDR imposed on the current U.S. system of higher education means programs and institutions with the worst outcomes and highest debts will accrue the largest subsidies.

Looney does a back of the envelope calculation and estimates that typical graduates in Mechanical Engineering will on average get a 0% subsidy but graduates in Music will get a 96% subsidy, in Drama a 99% subsidy and Masseuses a 100% subsidy on average. This of course is exactly the wrong approach. If we are going to subsidize, we should subsidize degrees with plausible positive spillovers not masseues.

The problem is not just the subsidy but the encouragement this gives to create low-value programs:

  • …institutions will have an incentive to create valueless programs and aggressively recruit students into those programs with promises they will be free under an IDR plan….The fact that a student can take a loan for living expenses (or even enroll in a program for purposes of taking out such a loan) makes the loan program easy to abuse. Some borrowers will use the loan system as an ATM, taking out student loans knowing they’ll qualify for forgiveness, and receiving the proceeds in cash, expecting not to repay the loan….I suspect that such abuses will be facilitated by predatory institutions.

Overall, the student loan program, as currently written, is looking to be one of the most costly, inefficient and unwise government programs of the 21st century. As I said in my first post, “fixing” the program is likely to drive ever more increasing intervention into higher education much as has happened with health care. My guess is that no one really thought this albatross through.



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