New York Fed Endorses Credential Fraud

Yes, I’m lying, but the New York Fed’s promised analysis of five-year and six-year college degrees calls the college premium into question, not that the authors understand why. They calculate that adding a fifth or even a sixth year of college costs workers ~$65,000 or ~$130,000 over their lifetimes, respectively. Thus, I wonder, “Why not graduate in just three years then to get on that wage-premium track earlier?” Maybe people could do it in two, or one, or just say they went to college even if they didn’t. It reminds me of the “seven-minute abs” scene from There’s Something About Mary, which for some reason YouTube doesn’t have a clean copy of. Feel free to explore on your own, but if you disagree with the zero-year bachelor’s degree, then you’re dreaming about Gorgonzola cheese when it’s clearly Bree time, baby.

The lesson is: Never reason from a college premium, which apparently even college graduates can’t figure out.

The more entertaining adventure is the New York Fed’s subsequent post in which it dares to question if a world outside the average college graduate exists. It’s titled, “College May Not Pay Off for Everyone.” Heretical, I know.

Here’s the authors’ chart, which unlike any research I’ve been able to do, goes back to the 1970s.

I guess The Graduate was art imitating life after all…

I’ve just received word that the authors’ security clearance has been revoked.

Don’t worry, though, they hedged themselves:

While we can’t be sure that the wages of this group wouldn’t have been lower if they had never gone to college, this pattern strongly suggests that the economic benefit of a college education is relatively small for at least a quarter of those graduating with a bachelor’s degree.

Yeah, in college-premium land it’s obvious that those grads are so stupid that if they hadn’t gone to college they would’ve been unemployed—and if they hadn’t finished high school, they would’ve sold themselves into slavery.

The obvious thing to ask is what kind of occupations these workers are in. If they aren’t in positions that require much college education, then that might imply that too many people go to college, that many college grads in highish-paying jobs benefit more from the signal their degree sends than the human capital developed through coursework, that the public is filled with endless garbage about the need for more college graduates (often at the behest of student lenders), and that a lot of these low-earners who have significant student loan debts will be unable to repay them, possibly culminating in a government write-down in the future.

Or they could just be really stupid and college qualifies them to be retail salespersons. And you shouldn’t worry, all those stories are just scaremongering and you should trust your east-coast media elite.

Grade Inflation: It Depends How You Define ‘Educational Quality’

On VoxEU, we have Raphael Boleslavsky and Christopher Cotton’s, “The unrecognized benefits of grade inflation.” The authors write:

Our analysis reveals a surprising link between grade inflation and investment in education quality – schools invest more when they are allowed to inflate grades than when grade inflation is banned. …

With grade inflation, student transcripts convey less information, and therefore the employer relies less on transcripts and more on school reputation when evaluating graduates. In this way, grade inflation increases the incentives that schools have to undertake costly investments to improve quality of education, and the average ability of their graduates. To the extent that school investments and a student’s own study efforts are strategic complements in human capital development, students who anticipate greater investments by schools in turn have greater incentives to increase their own efforts. [Emphasis LSTB]

You could replace the emphasized bits about “education quality” with “wasteful spending” or the like and you’d have an accurate description of what goes on at law schools.

For instance, we have expanding faculties:

Law School Faculty Per School (Calendar-Year Average, Index 1999=100, Excl. P.R.)

(Source: Official Guide, author’s calculations)

We have lots of internal grants and scholarships:

Spending on Internal Grants and Scholarships Per Law School (2013 $)

(Source: ABA (pdf), Bureau of Labor Statistics, author’s calculations)

We have no (net) positive impact on job outcomes:

Percent Employed by Status (NALP)

(Source: NALP)

We have a decline in legal sector labor productivity:

Legal Sector Labor Productivity (2005=100)

(Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

…And all this is covered with tuition hikes on the poor souls who are paying full tuition (if that):

Median Full-Time Law School Tuition (2013 $)

(Source: ABA (pdf), FinAid.org, Bureau of Labor Statistics, author’s calculations)

None of this is necessarily the result of grade inflation, which the authors’ model takes to be endogenous when I happen to think it’s exogenous (Hell, even the law school deans say so). If anything grade inflation is a symptom of the same pressures the schools are under to signal their degrees’ prestige to employers. But job outcomes is most of what this all comes down to. If there weren’t such a wide dispersion of jobs and salaries, then there’d be less motivation to engage in these kinds of wasteful behaviors. The free student loans are the accelerant.

However, there’s no reason to believe that, in the face of grade inflation, colleges and universities would improve their reputations by carefully investing in better student outcomes; rather, they would invest the bare minimum of what the employers want to see—not what actually makes the graduates more productive. That’s why the employers complain about how law students take frivolous courses but keep hiring from elite law schools nevertheless.

Revealed preferences, people. Revealed preferences.

The ABA Task Force Might Not Think Grad PLUS Loans Are a Problem

…But Barack Obama certainly doesn’t either. Mere days after the ABA Journal tells us of the skepticism of some members of the ABA Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education about the effect student loans have on law school pricing, MainStreet.com informs us that the Obama administration is proposing new rules that would further reduce the already lax underwriting standards for Grad PLUS loans. If the administration has its way, prospective borrowers will no longer have those pesky 90-day-plus-delinquent debts held against them by the Department of Education.

And just how many grad students are denied Grad PLUS loans due to bad credit? ED tells us that they numbered about 129,100 between March 2013 to February 2014, but don’t worry, 65,507 were able to remediate the department’s decision via appeal or endorsement. ED data also tell us that Grad PLUS loan three-year cohort-default rates are below one percent. Care to know how many of them are on IBR? Well too bad: The “non-Federal negotiators” who met with ED officials before ED proposed the new rule didn’t think to ask that. (Source here and here)

Borrowers might also be able to exclude $2,000 in delinquent debt from their federal credit checks as well.

“The Obama administration is committed to keeping college accessible and affordable and helping families make thoughtful and informed choices to fund a higher education in today’s economy,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. “These changes allow us to continue to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and open the doors of college to ensure all students have the opportunity to walk through them.”

Right. Something tells me Arne Duncan will never be held accountable for the student debt balloon he helped birth.

The MainStreet.com article then focuses on Parent PLUS loans that end up wiping out the parents because their kids are broke after college. However, you shouldn’t let that lull you into discounting the Grad PLUS variety. In the 2012-13 academic year, Uncle Sam issued $10 billion in Parent PLUS loans and $7.7 billion in Grad PLUS loans, which have been rapidly catching up in volume despite having half the number of recipients. That means people who take out Grad PLUS loans are likely to borrow larger sums than Parent PLUS loan borrowers. (Unless Parent PLUS borrowers are double-counted when they’re married couples or whatever.) Grad PLUS borrowers take out about $22,800 on average compared to the $14,000 for Parent PLUS borrowers.

On the bright side, Grad PLUS borrowers can throw all their loans onto protracted, bureaucratic, chapter 13 bankruptcy IBR and let the government eat the write-down if they’re largely unpayable. Parent PLUS borrowers aren’t so lucky.

Good News: The Student Loan Crisis Has Been Canceled

…According to the Brookings Institution’s Beth Akers’ and Matthew M. Chingos’ paper, “Is a Student Loan Crisis on the Horizon?” The authors find that not only is there no crisis today, but there won’t be one in the future. (“Crisis” here, I gather, means debtors being unable to make their payments and taxpayers being forced to write-down some billions in student loans.)

Before picking through their paper, though, I have to give special credit to The New York Times‘ David Leonhardt, who crows:

The deeply indebted college graduate has become a stock character in the national conversation: the art history major with $50,000 in debt, the underemployed barista with $75,000, the struggling poet with $100,000. … Such graduates make for good stories (and they tend to involve the peer group of journalists).

This comes mere days after The New York Times Magazine ran an article officially declaring that millennial college graduates who were living with their parents weren’t leaving. Many of the subjects had significant student loan debts and low-paying jobs. I’m not saying the participants were typical of their age group, but I’m impressed that Leonhardt can undercut his own publication. I admire gall.

As for Akers’ and Chingos’ paper, take a look at John Haskell’s response. He argues that the authors commit a composition fallacy by comparing student debt repayment during the more recent economic disaster with the halcyon days of the 1990s.

It’s an excellent point, and I have some of my own to add.

One, on page 4 of the report, the authors aggressively lean on the college premium as evidence that “the growth in debt is not [obviously] problematic.” The idea is that if the gap between college graduates’ earnings and high school graduates’ widens, then college is a good bet. The flaw, and there are many with this kind of thinking, is that both sets of earnings can be falling simultaneously but so long as high school graduates’ earnings are falling faster, then student debt can still be a problem even as the premium is growing.

Two, the authors make an implied structural unemployment argument when they write, “In 2011, college graduates between the ages of 23 and 25 … had employment rates 20 percentage points higher [than high school graduates].” However, not going to college isn’t the cause of lower employment rates among high school graduates. It’s because there’s slack demand for labor in the economy. It’s not too much of a stretch to hypothesize that employers prefer college graduates even for menial jobs.

Three, as always with college premium discussions, not everyone gets the average college degree, and not everyone has the average debt level. The authors only bring this up in their conclusion, which I think is unfair to readers.

Four, Akers and Chingos challenge the rhetoric of a student debt crisis by analyzing data on households with householders aged 20-40 from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer finances. It’s a minor point, but people who have higher debt levels are probably more likely to be living with their 40+-year-old parents than on their own. I doubt the effect is that large, but it’s something Akers and Chingos should have noted.

Five, it’s one type of composition fallacy to compare past trends with current outcomes, but it’s another to omit prospective factors from one’s predictions. The authors assume today’s college graduates won’t suffer from “cohort risk” due to the persistent output gap. It’s a pretty big if, and Akers and Chingos won’t pay anyone’s student loans if they’re wrong.

Having said that, when the authors find fairly low monthly payment-to-income ratios (excluding debtors making less than $1,000 per year) it may appear too good to be true, but we should acknowledge it.

Monthly Student Loan Payment-to-Income Ratios, 1992-2010

I’m not sure what this means given the simple calculation I did above. It’s pretty surprising that student loans are such a small amount of monthly incomes. It might be that they’re excluding the billions of dollars in student loans that are in default, forbearance, deferment.

Finally, since the conversation on student loan debt is creeping towards amputating graduate school debtors from undergrads, gaze upon Akers’ and Chingos’ Figure 4:

Akers and Chingos Figure 4

The Survey of Consumer Finances is given only once every three years, but even between 2007 and 2010, the spike in graduates’ debt is evident. Who wants to bet that these aren’t Grad PLUS loans? Seriously, that program is not long for this world.

The authors conclude that their results should encourage Washington to not tweak the student loan system based on a perception of widespread financial hardship. They do not, frustratingly, discuss any of the existing indicators of a present student debt crisis. 11 percent of student loan balances are delinquent, 11 percent of debtors (minimum) with federal loans are in default, and $322 billion out of $1.043 trillion in federal loans are in deferment, forbearance, or default. (Calculated from here) Since we know the economy isn’t roaring forward and won’t without systemic reform, it’s hard to believe that all these loans will be repaid in full. If this doesn’t count as a crisis, what does?

 

Lowering Law School Tuition Mainly Benefits Students, Taxpayers

Gotta be quick, but Brooklyn Law School dean Nicholas Allard writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Lowering Law-School Tuition Benefits Everyone, Not Just the Students,” which deserves comment.

The fact is that the financial model of law schools is broken. Unless the schools do what they can to make legal education more affordable, they will price themselves out of business, contribute to the high cost of legal services that most people need, and widen the gap in access to justice.

The first sentence is true, but the rest is questionable. Many people will not go to law school at any price, but some schools will survive if they slash tuition. However, tuition has little to do with the cost of legal services and access to justice (not the justice of rents to legal educators).

Allard appears to believe that high tuition leads to high debt, which leads to lawyers not taking public interest jobs that pay less then courtroom janitors. It’s odd because two paragraphs later, he mentions Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Pay-As-You-Earn, which falsify his thesis. If highly indebted graduates want to serve the poor, they should be able to under the current loan-repayment framework. Sure, the proposed caps on PSLF would be bad for debtors and are based on the belief that they over-borrowed rather than the schools over-pricing, the government over-lending, or the jobs-underpaying, but graduates do not often pass up public interest in favor of biglaw. Not everyone gets such a choice.

It is a shameful canard that student loans and indebtedness are the cause of high tuition. They are not; they are the symptom. Tuitions at law schools are soaring … because of the way law schools spend money in pursuit of rankings rather than investing in students, education, professional training, and scholarship.

Not sure what Allard means here, but I think it’s the closest I’ve seen to a law school dean rejecting the Bennett hypothesis. Without excessive federal lending, law schools couldn’t raise their costs. It’s the means of the tuition bubble, not the motive and opportunity—if you fancy looking at this like a murder mystery.

With political currents eroding America’s historic and successful support for higher education, we can’t expect anyone else to help. We must do what we can to break this cycle ourselves. By making law school expensive for motivated, talented women and men, we are shortchanging ourselves. In this country, lawyers have played the central role as guardians of our democratic republic and architects of economic opportunity and prosperity. They will be needed even more in the future.

Political support for legal education has not been a success. It’s created too many law schools, too many law school graduates, and too much unpayable student debt. For example, the NALP just reported that the percent of 2013 graduates employed at all in February 2014 had fallen—negligibly—to 84.5 percent, even though late last year Dean Allard predicted, “[T]he employment rates reported in 2014 will be substantially higher than in 2013.” (More on the NALP report another time.)

Look, good on Brooklyn Law School for unilaterally cutting its tuition next year. It may not be a voluntary rather than demonstrative act like if an elite law school did it to buck the U.S. News rankings, but we can have competent lawyers without student loans and expensive law schools.

On a 25-year fixed repayment the average 2013 Brooklyn Law grad would have to cough up over $750 a month to make his or her student loan payments on $110,000 in debt. Even under the old IBR system, that would require an income of $121,600 per year from day one to escape loan cancelation after 25 years. Since many BLS grads don’t make that kind of income, many will undoubtedly take PAYE and the government will have to write-down the losses. Thus, Allard is right: The beneficiaries of lower law school tuition aren’t just law students but everyone else. Although, it is a “shameful canard” to imply that the federal loan program is a blessing for everyone but law schools and a handful of lucky law students.

PAYE for All!

From the Associated Press, “Obama to Announce Expansion of Student Loan Repayment Program.”

Obama on Monday will announce he’s expanding his “Pay As You Earn” program that lets borrowers pay no more than 10 percent of their monthly income in loan payments, the White House said. Currently, the program is only available to those who started borrowing after October 2007 and kept borrowing after October 2011. Obama plans to start allowing those who borrowed earlier to participate, potentially extending the benefit to millions more borrowers.

I didn’t realize Obama could do this via executive action, but there you have it. In fact, IBR was planned to transform into PAYE by 2014 by law all along. IBR as you’ve known it will be gone for good. RIP I guess.

“At a time when college has never been more important, it’s also never been more expensive,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address released Saturday.

We can also expect a larger aggregate amount of student debt to be written off in the next couple of decades.

Obama also plans to announce he’s directing the government to renegotiate contracts with federal student loan servicers to encourage them to make it easier for borrowers to avoid defaulting on their loans. And he will ask the Treasury and Education departments to work with major tax preparers, including H&R Block and the makers of TurboTax, to increase awareness about tuition tax credits and flexible repayment options available to borrowers.

This is unobjectionable. Beyond that, though, the president voiced his support for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposed student loan refinancing scheme, which would allow debtors to take advantage of the low overnight rates the Fed offers banks. Yes, it’s apples-to-oranges because student debts are paid within 10 years or more and not overnight, but it’s a little strange because the reason Congress abolished the guaranteed loan program under the Affordable Care Act was that it would use student loan repayments to pay for health care. With easily refinanced interest rates, that’s unlikely to happen.

The president will continue the push Tuesday in an online question-and-answer session hosted by Tumblr.

Maybe you can ask him how much student debt the OMB expects to be forgiven. I doubt it’s even pondered the question.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky in a statement criticized the Democratic bill for failing to address college costs.

“This bill doesn’t make college more affordable, reduce the amount of money students will have to borrow, or do anything about the lack of jobs grads face in the Obama economy,” he said.

Pretty much.

Fed Household Survey Finds Rampant Student Loan Illiteracy

And you’re surprised because?…

Liberty Street Economics brings us, “What Americans (Don’t) Know About Student Loan Collections,” in which the authors report on the impact of an added question on student loans to the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Expectations. Its first chief finding is that only 35 percent of the households surveyed correctly answered this question:

If a borrower is unable to repay her federal student loan, what steps can the government take to collect the debt?

A. Report that the student debt is past due to the credit bureaus.

B. Garnish wages until the debt, plus any interest and fees, is repaid.

C. Retain tax refunds and Social Security payments until the debt, plus any interest and fees, is repaid.

The correct answer is all of the above. (You did know that, right? If not, don’t worry, fewer than half of all respondents who had student loans got it right too.) Alarmingly, 28 percent thought it was none of the above.

The survey’s second question was to rate on a scale of one to five how likely it is that a student loan can be discharged in bankruptcy, with one being “extremely unlikely” and five being “extremely likely.” Here, the authors’ findings are confusing because their chart says that 37 percent gave a 5, but the text says those 37 percent marked 1. It’s the type of mild error that is both understandable yet deeply annoying. The average response was 2.4, suggesting that “U.S. households overestimate the ease with which student loans may be expunged from their balance sheets.”

Oh God.

It gets worse: In a parenthetical, the authors state that “reported federal recovery rates on defaulted direct student loans exceed [pdf] 70 percent.” (Emphasis original) The link is to ED’s student loan overview in its budget proposal for FY2014, which began in October 2013. On page S-32, it provides a table estimating that for all the subsidized Stafford loans disbursed in 2014, nearly a quarter will go into default (so much for those subsidies), and up to 9 percent of all PLUS loans will do so as well. I’m guessing this already takes IBR into account without estimating substantial future enrollments, which I think are likely. The net present recovery of subsidized Stafford loans that’s also net of collection costs is predicted to be nearly 90 percent.

FY2014 Estimated Recovery Rates

So the bad news is that American households don’t know the full extent of the consequences of defaulting on student loans. The good news is the government is going to be paid vastly more than it would if these were credit cards. Oh, that’s bad news for the student-loan-illiterate debtors. Oops.

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