August 31st, 2021

How Schools Lie

The deceptive financial aid system at America's colleges

When prospective students navigate the process of choosing a college, financing is a central and often determining factor in the final decision of enrollment. Students first turn to college websites and the College Board to look at cost data, and many then apply for financial aid through FAFSA, which relies on cost estimates provided directly by colleges to determine aid packages. Prospective students know that college is a steep investment—they take seriously the decision of where and what to study and the costs it incurs. No matter how talented, hard working, and committed a student is, if financing falls through, the dream of obtaining higher education can be dashed. But much of the financial data that prospective students receive is misleading. In the cost information offered to prospective students, higher ed institutions consistently underestimate the non-tuition costs of attending college, and overestimate the amount of incoming aid from grants and scholarships. Discrepancies between estimated and real prices can add up to thousands of dollars in unanticipated costs, burdening students who already struggle to afford college.

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June 10th, 2021

Hysteresis & Student Debt

How the Great Recession fueled the student debt crisis

The geographic character of the Great Recession is, at this point, well-known. While everywhere in the United States experienced a sharp increase in unemployment, some areas suffered disproportionate exposure of local employment in harder-hit industries.

The Great Recession is also substantially at fault for the student debt crisis, and the geographic contours of the downturn carry implications for how student debt has subsequently been experienced throughout the country. The number of borrowers and average loan balances were increasing rapidly before the onset of the financial crisis, thanks to the defunding of public university systems following the previous cyclical downturn in the early 2000s. The Great Recession put those trends into overdrive: with fewer jobs available and a more selective labor market, many young people were funneled into a higher education system already in the process of becoming much more dependent on students and their families paying hefty tuition, as opposed to state support. Those who had entered the system seeking credentials to boost their chances in the labor market then graduated (or didn’t graduate) into a labor market still suffering from stagnant wages and disappearing job opportunities. Credentialization cascaded into higher loan balances as a share of income, rising delinquency, and eventually declining repayment rates.

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November 18th, 2020

The Student Debt Crisis is a Crisis of Non-Repayment

Think of the student debt crisis as an overflowing bathtub. On the one hand, too much water is pouring in: more borrowers are taking on more debt. That is thanks to increased demand for higher education in the face of rising tuition, stagnant wages, diminishing job opportunities for those with less than a college degree, and the power of employers to dictate that would-be hires have the necessary training in advance. On the other hand, the drain is clogged and too little water is draining out: those who have taken on debt are increasingly unable to pay it off.

The last post in the Millennial Student Debt project used a new database of student debtors and their loan characteristics (matched to demographic and economic data in the American Community Survey) to document the former phenomenon, both in aggregate and particularly as it pertains to disadvantaged communities along multiple dimensions. Specifically, it showed the rapid growth of student debt levels and debt-to-income ratios in the population at large, among people of all income levels. But this growth is concentrated among non-white borrowers, who have higher debt conditional on income and whose increased indebtedness over the past decade-plus is greater than for white borrowers. That racial disparity is particularly pronounced in the middle of the income distribution. It also showed that student-debt-to-income ratios have grown fastest in the poorest communities since 2008. This post uses the same data to document the latter: non-repayment by student loan borrowers is getting worse over time, especially so for non-white debtors.

Over the last ten years, as outstanding student loan debt has mounted and been assumed by a more diverse, less affluent group of students and their families than was the case for prior cohorts, a common policy response has been to wave away its impact on wealth, both individually and in aggregate, by saying that the debt finances its own repayment. First of all, so the claim goes, student debt finances college degrees that in turn pay off in the form of higher earnings, enabling debtors to repay. Second, expanded allowance for income-driven repayment (IDR), by capping debt service as a share of disposable income, eliminates the worst forms of delinquency and default. The first claim says that repayment is inevitable, the second that it need not take place. Both claims together, however, serve to rationalize higher debt, higher tuition, higher attainment, and the forces driving all three.

IDR was designed to address a liquidity crunch: since students are graduating with more debt, they may not earn enough immediately upon entering the workforce to pay it down. That failure of earnings to align with debt service obligations means that a program to defer those obligations until earnings are realized would ameliorate delinquency and default, at the cost of capitalizing unpaid interest into a higher principal balance. The creation and expansion of IDR programs in the early 2010s did indeed serve to stop the growth of delinquency by the mid-2010s and reverse it, to the point that the share of accounts delinquent now is lower than it was before the Great Recession, despite the amount of debt and the number of debtors having increased continuously since then. For that reason, many higher education policy analysts have proposed further expanding the program.

But IDR programs will never be successful as a solution to the student debt crisis, because they’re designed to address a liquidity problem rather than the real problem—solvency. The problem with student debt is a problem of wealth—students and their families are taking on debt because they don’t have enough wealth to afford increasingly-costly, increasingly-mandatory higher education. The debt then itself exacerbates wealth disparities that the higher education it “paid” for doesn’t rectify.

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September 17th, 2020

Unceasing Debt, Disparate Burdens: Student Debt and Young America

Since the Great Recession, outstanding student loan debt in the United States has increased by 122% in 2019 dollars, reaching the staggering sum of \$1.66 trillion in June of this year. Student loan debt has grown faster than other debt types, including auto, credit card and mortgage debt. For many, education is the only pathway towards good employment with benefits, leading to economic and social opportunities later in life. But as college becomes more unaffordable with each passing year, student loans are bridging the ever-expanding chasm between college savings and obtaining an education. The crisis has reached the national political arena, with policymakers recently calling for debt cancellation up to \$50,000 for federal borrowers.

Our research demonstrates that the student debt crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities. We found that all young borrowers are saddled with dramatically rising debt since 2009, but low-income groups, BIPOC, and those in their 30s fare far worse than others. While richer students have higher absolute debt, low-income students experience massive and growing relative debt burdens. And students in majority-Black and Hispanic zip codes, who are more likely to attend for-profit private institutions, have seen larger debt increases than those in majority-white zip codes. Debt levels have jumped in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Gaining insight into broad trends in debt accumulation, as well as details about the particular demographic or labor market characteristics that shape changes in individuals’ debt burden over time, allows us to more effectively tailor our policy recommendations. For example, our research finds that forgiving $50,000 in student loans would make 80% of young adult borrowers student debt free.

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June 25th, 2020

Declining Access, Rising Cost: The Geography of Higher Education Post-2008

Mapping concentration and prices in the US higher education industry

During and after the Great Recession, public funding for higher education was slashed as part of state budget austerity. Staff and programs were cut and tuition rose; in many states, even by 2018, funding had not returned to pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, enrollment soared. As students locked out of a slack labor market were told they “lacked the skills necessary for today’s jobs,” the solution to unemployment and wage stagnation was to be found in more degrees at higher prices. The result was the acceleration of what is now a four or five-decade trend in US higher education: the replacement of a public good model with a private consumer model, dependent on tuition financed with federal debt, all justified on the back of supposed earnings increases that fail to materialize.

With skyrocketing prices and ballooning student debt, the private for-profit model has taken hold in even traditional schools, which are seeking to cut teaching costs while retaining students and their hefty tuition payments. Even leaving aside the possible collapse of tuition revenues from nonattendance, forecasts for state budget cuts coming out of the Covid-19 recession are alarming—unless the patterns of the Great Recession are avoided, we can abandon hope of a more equitable, inclusive, or expansive higher education landscape into the 2020s.

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December 18th, 2019

Unequal and Uneven: The Geography of Higher Education Access

Mapping market concentration in the higher education industry

In much of the existing higher education literature, “college access” is understood in terms of pre-college educational attainment, social and informational networks, and financial capacity, both for tuition and living expenses. The US ranks highly on initial college access by comparison with other countries, but this access—along with all major metrics of college success, including completion rates, default rates, and debt-to-income ratios—exhibits drastic inequality along familiar lines of race, gender, class, and geography.

Along with other pernicious myths, the media stereotype of the college student often figures undergraduates traveling far from home to live in a dorm on a leafy campus. The reality is far from the case: over 50% of students enrolled in four-year public college do so close to their home. This means that the geography of higher ed institutions strongly determines the options available to a given student. While much higher education policy discourse justly attempts to improve students’ access to information on school costs, financial aid information, completion rates, or post-graduation employment statistics to inform their school choices, political attention to geographic access remains overlooked.

Previous research on the geography of higher ed has simply reported the number of institutions in a given area. But the raw number of schools is ambiguous, as it fails to account for enrollment. We wanted to complicate the picture: given the uneven distribution of higher ed institutions and institution types—public and private non-profits, as well as for-profits of all kinds—around the country, we wanted to examine what role market concentration might play in a higher education industry increasingly characterized by a wide divide between elite institutions and the landscape of what Tressie McMillan Cottom has termed "Lower Ed." Starting from the perspective that many students are not going to travel long distances to be in residence full time at a leafy campus, how many options are they realistically looking at? And what’s the relationship between concentration, disparities on the basis of race, class, and geography, institutions’ resulting market power, and college cost, debt loads, and post-graduate earnings?

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