It’s Only Links ‘n Roll

It’s been ages since I’ve done a music-themed links page, but a bunch of little news items have popped up that are undeserving of full-article treatment.

Beth Akers, “How Income Share Agreements Could Play a Role in Higher Ed Financing,” The Brookings Institution, October 16, 2014.

When we last (and first) met Beth Akers she was trolling the student debt crisis, but now she’s doing some good advocacy with “income share agreements,” a novel term for what I’ve seen referred to as human capital contracts. It’s just replacing debt with equity for financing higher education, but it shifts the risk (and the rare windfall) away from the students. Unfortunately it hasn’t come up often in recent debates, aside from the University of Oregon’s decision to investigate using them. The fear was that human capital contracts would lead to an “adverse selection” problem as with health insurance: People in majors with the best job prospects will prefer to pay full tuition while those with the worst prospects will take the equity route, leaving the funders (the university in Oregon’s case) broke. Adverse selection is really a problem for universities that don’t sell lucrative degrees, so I’m not sure it’s really the problem at all.

Rashmi Rangan and James Angus, “Time for a state-sponsored law school in Delaware,” DelawareOnline.com, October 12, 2014.

Remember the University of Delaware’s scheme to build a public law school? Well, Rangan and Angus don’t. The idea was first floated in late 2010, but several months later the university’s feasibility study produced some bad news: The project would cost $100 million and the law school would run at a $165 million operating deficit for ten years. Nothing about the rising wages and job vacancies for attorneys in Delaware. I guess those folks didn’t have the nerve to predict an attorney shortage that would have to be remedied with foreign lawyers like Indiana Tech did.

Rangan’s and Angus’s arguments for a public law school boil down to (a) the population of two of its counties is growing and (b) the school’s graduates would go into public service. Again, nothing on unfilled attorney positions and rising wages. Delaware would probably get a lot more out of a $100 million expenditure by funding legal aid clinics throughout the state.

Dean Baker, “Quick Note on Heavy Babies and GDP Accounting,” Beat the Press, October 16, 2014.

Baker writes:

I have always thought that for purposes like constructing cost-of-living indexes, we are best off just pulling out the money we spend on health care and measuring the price increases of non-health care consumption against the income we have left over after paying for health care expenses. This would treat spending on health care like a tax. If we want to then incorporate changes in our health into our assessment of living standards then we look directly at outcome measures (e.g. life expectancy, morbidity rates, self-rated health conditions), not the volume of health services we are consuming.

We could say the same thing about higher education costs, mutatis mutandis, given that there’s no evidence it increases national income yet we’re told it’s crucially necessary for “competitiveness.”

Kate Lao Shaffner, “Five Questions With … Altoona Mayor Matt Pacifico on walking routes, property taxes, and downtown struggles,” NewsWorks.org, October 14, 2014.

Altoona is a rare example of a municipality that has chosen to take advantage of Pennsylvania’s split-rate property tax system to implement land value taxation. In a Q&A with the city’s mayor, Matt Pacifico, though, he seems to think it “didn’t work.”

I think when we decided to go 100 percent Land Value Tax, it missed the mark on what it was intended to do. It was supposed to motivate homeowners to want to improve their dwellings without seeing their property taxes go up from the city, but a lot of homeowners in the city are unaware of how it works. So I don’t think it was properly promoted. For instance, you could build a $3 million house on a two acre parcel of land, and you’re only taxed by the city on the value of the land, and not the structure on it. However, the school district and the county still tax you by the structure, so it can be very confusing. If those two taxing bodies were also able to tax based on LVT, then it could have the right effect, but they are not.

This is a pretty muddled statement. On the one hand, Pacifico acknowledges that the effects of LVT have been hampered by concurrent property tax systems the city has no control over that still tax structures, but on the other hand he seems to think that the primary point of LVT is to stimulate home remodeling. I’d hazard that people don’t think much about property taxes when adding patios to their dwellings but do think about them when building new structures from scratch.

Pacifico isn’t alone, for even Altoona’s city council is going to investigate the results of the tax shift. Superficially, however, I think Altoona’s LVT been more successful than Pacifico believes. A 2011 article in the Altoona Mirror described residents calling the city asking why their property taxes had fallen—and land speculators complaining about their bills. Most persuasively, a study of the final phase of Altoona’s tax shift found that most parcels would receive a tax cut while most would see a hike if it shifted back to a flat property tax. Generally, the switch to LVT decreased revenue from residential parcels while increasing it from commercial parcels. Consequently, on an in personam basis, the findings should be that LVT has cut taxes on the majority of middle- and lower-income households and raised them on land owned by the wealthy.

Nevertheless, I hope that the investigation explores the effects of LVT on the land use of commercial properties and absentee or vacant parcels. Here’s hoping the results are both good and clearly presented.

Less Debt, Fewer Defaults, and More IBR

…Is everything you needed to know about last week in the world of federal student loans.

We have The Wall Street Journal‘s Morning Editorial Report … um … editorializing on the “Surge in Student Debt Forgiveness.” The whole article is subscription required, but it appears the WSJ is continuing its biased reporting on IBR by sloppily characterizing it as a loan-forgiveness program rather than a program whose intended purpose is to reduce monthly payments. That’s not to say I don’t think IBR will cost the government a lot of money or that the average amount borrowed is high enough to indicate that a lot of these debtors borrowed Grad PLUS loans, but this is pretty shrill. Like, how dare an income-based repayment program base people’s repayments on their incomes? What’s next Social Security securing society from old people starving to death in the streets??

On the other hand, we have The Washington Post, which does a much better job of pondering why student loan defaults are dropping. IBR is part of it, as is slightly better job outcomes for graduates. It even concedes that college graduates are finding jobs that don’t require their degrees. Clearly the author has not gotten the memo on occupations.

Finally we have an article by … me. This very post you’re reading. Recently, the Department of Education released its fourth quarter report of total student loan volumes by institution. The slightly good news is that last year the aggregate disbursement fell below $100 billion.

Aggregate Federal Loans Disbursed (Current $)

The bulk (43 percent) of the $5.9 billion decline is in unsubsidized Stafford loans to undergraduates, and 37 percent were due to subsidized Stafford loans (which now go only to undergraduates). The rest (1/4th) is due to unsubsidized Staffords to graduate students. Grad PLUS loan disbursements grew by half a percent. Can’t win ‘em all, I guess.

As for the amount disbursed per recipient (in current dollars, for loan limits aren’t inflation-adjusted and that’s the benchmark to measure changes against), most of the loan types saw negligible declines, indicating that either fewer people are taking out federal loans or fewer Americans are going to college.

Meanwhile, since the Internet tells us that Thomas Jefferson School of Law is in trouble, I figure it’s time to check in on those freestanding private law schools. TJSL isn’t alone, it just hasn’t managed to find a public university to socialize it yet (see WSJ, there’s your Social Security quip!). Western State fused into Argosy University two years ago, but I heard that was a long time coming. Texas Wesleyan is now Texas A&M, and some of the formers’ graduates want diplomas that say they went to the more reputable latter. Chalk one more up for the signaling hypothesis. Finally, the University of New Hampshire (formerly Franklin Pierce Law Center) is in fact now the University of New Hampshire. Go figure.

Oh, and how could I forget: Thomas M. Cooley is now affiliated with Western Michigan University.

I’ve heard rumors of other mergers going on among the FSP law schools, but that’s four that are adapting to the new world. TJSL just happens to be dealing with its fiscal problems by having a fiscal crisis.

There’s more to be said on this, but I figured I’d leave you with a chart comparing the average amount borrowed per recipient of federal loans at each of these law schools to their total costs for full-time students according to the Official Guide.

Average Amounts Borrowed Over Full-Time Costs at FSP Law Schools (2013-14)

I draw your attention to the fact that at none of these schools can a full-time law student cover his or her tuition with just unsubsidized Stafford loans. (Also, it seems that some law students are cleverly borrowing more than the annual loan limit allows. Hm.) At the average FSP law school last year, 87 percent of students took out Stafford loans; 70 percent borrowed Grad PLUS loans.

Fin.

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.

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