Demos: Denominators Don’t Matter for Subsidies to Public Universities

Last week Demos published a paper that carefully apportions the causes of tuition cost hikes at public universities over the last decade (2001-2011). Authored by Robert Hitonsmith, it finds that 79 percent of the increases are due to cuts in state subsidies, about $3,000 on average at four-year public universities. Hiltonsmith is known for a paper ominously titled, “How Student Debt Reduces Lifetime Wealth,” which estimates the lost lifetime personal savings due to student loans.

Reconciling these two papers might cause confusion because it’s easy to misinterpret Hiltonsmith’s first paper as arguing against widespread college attendance. It plainly says otherwise: College pays off, but the costs should be socialized. I’m not fond of this line of reasoning as it showcases a large pecuniary loss for college education without explaining where the offsetting public benefits come from. It’s hard to see an adverse selection problem in higher education as with health care or national defense.

Something similar goes on in Demos’ more recent paper, “Pulling Up the Higher-Ed Ladder: Myth and Reality in the Crisis of College Affordability.” There’s no reason to dispute Hiltonsmith’s findings: State’s aren’t subsidizing higher education as much as they used to on a per student basis, hence the tuition cost increases.

However, a quick glance at Bureau of Economic Analysis data tells us that state government spending on higher education has risen overall:

S&L GCE and GI (Higher Ed., 2009 $)

(Table 3.15.16)

…And here’s a chart of state and local higher education expenditures as a share of state spending and receipts.

S&L Higher Ed. Expenditures Share of--

(Table 3.15.5 and Table 3.3)

In constant dollars, state and local governments spent 22 percent more on higher education in 2011 than they did in 2001, and states spend about the same percentage of their budgets on higher education, so why is tuition increasing?

Answer: Fractions have denominators. College attendance grew substantially in the 2000s.

Looking at Digest of Education Statistics data, in 2011 the number of public university students was 23.5 percent higher than in 2001 (Table 303.10). Meanwhile, the total U.S. population only grew 9.5 percent between those two years. (Speaking of fractions, that’s a blunt comparison, but it’ll do.)

This is the drawback of Demos’ per-student spending analysis (and of fractions generally): It misses the systemic shift in demand for college credentials and states’ responses to it. Demos sees no diminishing marginal return to sending more and more people to college, so everyone should be subsidized equally no matter the economic conditions. Therefore, any cuts are wrong irrespective of what goes on in the denominator aggregate. In reality, people treat public higher education like unemployment insurance, except there’s a big difference: At some point higher education becomes mostly about getting ahead of everyone else. At least with unemployment insurance, marginal recipients get to stay alive and are better off finding work when it’s available.

But Demos isn’t ready to reach that insight. Indeed, the paper’s opening sentence is, “In today’s competitive economy, nothing is more important than getting a college education.” On the contrary, today’s economy isn’t competitive. If it were, then employers would bid up workers’ wages. The kind of competition that goes on in today’s economy is zero-sum squabbling. Thus, rather than advocating for positive competition, Demos is promising everything to everyone, as though we can all get ahead of everyone else simultaneously.

I have a few more points worth making in passing. One, the average inflation-adjusted full tuition price at private four-year institutions rose 36 percent from 2001 to 2011 (Digest table 330.10). I am not studious enough to figure out what the net tuition is, but I’m skeptical that this increase hasn’t affected public universities in some way. If the big private research universities spend more money on superstar faculty, for example, I’d be surprised if their public counterparts did not try to keep up. This goes on in law schools all the time. Likewise, I would also not characterize this Demos article as falsifying the Bennett hypothesis just because state subsidies per student play a larger role for tuition price increases at public institutions. I don’t think anyone ever said that.

Two, there are other arguments in favor of public higher education I haven’t addressed. For example, running a large research university in a large metropolitan area can be a magnet for young people and supporting private sector innovation. The for-profit world isn’t all Thomas Edison stuff.

Finally, I’m a fan of the soft, lovey-dovey, bleeding-heart humanities. (They’re also super cheap to produce.) The point here is not that higher education is solely positional competition. It’s that when Demos decries rising public college prices when incomes are stagnant, it’s not seeing a causal relationship. Stagnant incomes are motivating people to go to college, which strains public higher education systems, and state and local governments don’t want to cover everyone. Much of this is undoubtedly due to ideological Scott-Walkerist anti-intellectual budget arsonism, but what’s important are the causes of stagnant incomes. Funding everyone’s college degrees will not create college jobs for everyone.

‘Human Capital’ Theory Doesn’t Explain Law Grad Earnings

…Is on The American Lawyer.

You can take a wild guess as to its topic.

New America Foundation: Let the Sins of Grad PLUS Be Visited Upon IBR

I’ll try to go quickly through the New America Foundation’s (NAF’s) Jason Delisle’s and Alexander Holt’s Washington Post opinion piece from Friday. Reacting to news that the president’s budget forecasts income-based repayment programs (IBR) will cost the government an additional $21.8 billion, the authors argue that “too much” of it is attributable the administration’s changes to IBR, i.e. reducing monthly payments even more and accelerating loan forgiveness to 20 years from 25. Their article has many problems.

One, Delisle and Holt don’t provide evidence that the $21.8 billion comes from the changes to IBR. They’re just conjecturing. My hunch is that the additional costs are mainly attributable to the changes in the budget’s model that don’t anticipate as much job growth as before—or just increased participation in IBR. Without this evidence, the rest of Delisle’s and Holt’s article is just righteous huffing.

Two, the authors use this pretext to slide into their grad-students-are-abusing-IBR claim the NAF has been making for a few years now. This argument is problematic because the problem isn’t IBR so much as the Grad PLUS Loan Program, which the authors understand is unlimited and to their credit have advocated abolishing elsewhere. That’s all fine and good, but if the problem is Grad PLUS, then it’s not IBR, and the authors should focus on that instead. More on this point below.

Three, the grad-students-are-abusing-IBR claim has never been substantiated either. The NAF has always trotted it out in hypotheticals without doing the actual research. How many (and what percentage of) graduate debtors are (a) on IBR and (b) earn high enough incomes that could allow repayment under 25-year or consolidated repayment plans without compromising their living standards? Also, how many grad debtors are on IBR but are not earning enough to repay their loans under the older repayment plans?

These questions are crucial because until they’re answered those of us sitting at the feet of the East Coast think-tank elite can’t weigh how many people unfairly benefit from the changes to IBR against those who do not. If every unfair IBR beneficiary is canceled out by dozens of debtors who will never repay their loans in 25 or 20 years, then it’s safe to say that the changes to IBR are useful and the adverse consequences minimal. (And it’s not like the IBR changes have influenced people’s graduate school enrollment behaviors as law school applicants are still falling.) In the end, Delisle’s and Holt’s arguments are really just revamped versions of welfare queen fear-mongering.

Four, Delisle and Holt do not regain any sympathy with their hypothetical graduate debtor, Robert, who finishes law school with $150,000 in debt and earns $70,000 per year. Here are the problems with Robert:

(a)  For those of us who’ve done the research, Robert’s debt is plausible, but his income is not. Robert earns well over the median salary reported to NALP in 2013 ($62,467). Assuming that all non-reporting graduates are making less than the median, which I believe is fair, Robert is above the top 23 percent in law graduate earnings. He is quite atypical. The true median, which would include graduates working part-time and the 12.3 percent who were unemployed (and matter since we’re talking about debt repayment), is much, much lower. It’s likely many of them will never repay their loans. These people will benefit from the PAYE changes, but the NAF ignores them.

(b)  The authors then fashion out of Robert’s rib a wife, who earns $80,000 per year. With an annual household/family income of $150,000, readers should recognize that this partnership is in the top 10 percent by household income. Is this common for graduate debtors? Probably, but again the authors don’t say.

(c)  Delisle and Holt proceed to criticize IBR for not taking spousal incomes into account, that only 1.9 percent of Robert’s household’s/family’s income is going to his student loans. Are you shocked? Well, the response is, so what? Robert’s wife didn’t sign his master promissory notes any more than she would his gambling debts. If Robert wants to leave work to raise their kids, for example, doesn’t that imply that his wife will essentially assume his debts? Would the NAF say this if Robert were Roberta? How would unmarried Robert feel if he had to tell his bride-to-be that she’d be partly on the hook for his student loans if they got married? Again, what if Robert were Roberta, who would be more likely to take time off to raise children?

(d)  The authors’ hypothetical is only as outrageous as the lopsided assumptions they bake into it. It’s one thing to say that Robert, unusual though he is, benefits more from the Obama administration’s changes to IBR than before. But it’s a rhetorical foul altogether to throw in a wife, whose high earnings Robert largely has no power over, and then blame IBR for the result. Delisle and Holt could just as easily give Robert’s parents multimillion-dollar lottery tickets or 5 percent of Maine’s landmass, but it would still have little relevance for IBR as a policy.

Five, the authors repeat that graduate debtors are the unfair beneficiaries of the administration’s changes to IBR, that they’re half of all IBR participants (unsurprising: they have undergraduate debts too), that they have higher incomes and are less likely to be unemployed than undergrad (or non-grad) debtors. Again, no income data on IBR participants is given, so Delisle’s and Holt’s IBR welfare queens are all speculative. Now, I’m sure some exist, but the NAF needs to show us the bodies and carefully tell us whether they’re worth less than the number of underemployed graduate debtors who won’t be able to repay their loans.

Six, even if they do that, all their talk of IBR’s “loan-forgiveness benefits” is really a problem with Grad PLUS loans, not IBR. As I wrote last week, IBR without Grad PLUS loans would be much more innocuous. It’s one thing for Delisle and Holt to make poor arguments with unrepresentative examples, but I question their credibility if they’re going to attack IBR, which I think we all agree was never crafted with Grad PLUS loans in mind, instead of the loan program itself. Why not attack the problem at its source? What’s so special about IBR, then? Nor does it help that they bait their readers with the $21.8 billion IBR shortfall and then switch it with the changes to IBR without evidence. For all their elegant, mathematical—and probably costly—policy papers, the NAF’s results almost always have zero external validity. Like, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say those folks had some kind of ulterior, partisan motive…

Seven, and finally, at the beginning of their article the authors characterize the federal loan program as “an implicit contract: Students get loans to go to college at reasonable interest rates, with no previous credit history required, but when they graduate, they [and their high-income spouses, apparently] have to pay them back. But that agreement is shifting.”

In their dreams. The “implicit agreement” was that the loans would make debtors more productive workers so they could fill higher-paying jobs that required additional skills. Little of this has turned out to be true: There’s no good evidence that widespread college education is raising our national income, and the government has pretty much reneged on its jobs promises.

As far as contracts go, this one has been drafted in favor of the government. When its underlying assumptions are true, everyone wins, but when they’re not, the government won’t be held accountable for self-serving research, false promises, and reckless lending. Instead, attempts to help the debtors will face resistance by people like Delisle and Holt, who will howl at all the alleged benefits the lucky-duckies are getting—and right now we’re only talking about grad student debt! Consequently, you should expect the endgame for all this unpayable student loan debt to be really, really acrimonious.

NY Fed Chimes in on Collapsed Household Formation Rate

Following up on last week’s post, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York put up a post titled, “Household Formation within the ‘Boomerang Generation’,” asking, “Why might young people increasingly reside with their parents?”

Of the excellent charts the authors provide, I’ll only reprint the one I like best:

The write:

The chart also suggests, however, that the trend in parental co-residence has not substantially changed the fraction of individuals living with a single roommate, an arrangement that in many cases is likely to be a romantic partnership. (These patterns are similar for thirty-year-olds, where our analysis using the Current Population Survey indicates that co-residence with one adult is a highly accurate indicator of romantic partnership.)

So when exactly are the <50 percent of 25 year-olds supposed to form romantic partnerships and buy out their parents’ homes?

Answer: Never.

Our results demonstrate that local economic growth is a mixed blessing when it comes to building youth independence: Improvement in youth employment conditions enables young people to move away from their parents, but rising local house prices are estimated to have forced many young people to move back home. These two effects partially offset each other.

[W]hile local economic growth, reflected in rising youth employment and escalating house prices, has mixed consequences for youth independence, the increasing magnitude of student debt among college graduates appears to be driving young people home and keeping them there.

It’s astonishing that the NY Fed of all places is more willing to tell it like it is than the East Coast media elite, who think we need to send everyone to college and that student debt isn’t a problem.

10 Ways to Falsify Law Graduate Employment Doomsayers

I begin 2015’s first substantive post by invoking the right of listicle clickbait.

A loose end from December is Loyola Law School, Los Angeles professor Theodore Seto’s response to my American Lawyer article on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ proposed change to how it measures the replacement rate for lawyers. For Professor Seto, I have good news and better news.

The good news is that when he writes that he’s flattered that I’d respond to his article, he need not be. Of course I was going to write on the topic for The American Lawyer anyway, but his first article usefully illustrated the kind of thinking I cautioned against when I broke the story in early November.

The better news is that his closing line raises an interesting question worthy of further consideration. He writes:

But we should all remember (myself included) that the best legal counselors, when faced with new evidence, adjust their advice accordingly. They do not simply attack the evidence.

Let’s not discuss whether I was attacking new evidence. Readers can compare my article to Seto’s for themselves. Instead, if I interpret Seto fairly here (and he says I didn’t do that for his other article, so I tread lightly), he’s implying that I or perhaps others make unfalsifiable claims about the future of law graduate employment—that we unfairly dismiss any favorable news about graduates’ prospects because it contradicts our dogmatic positions that law school is a poor decision in probably most circumstances.

If so, he’s incorrect. My beliefs are falsifiable, and because the topic of falsifiability arose on this blog two more times in the last month, I’m inspired to write on it. So, here’s a list of events one could point to (and would probably need to) to predict that things will be better for grads in 2016.

(1)  The absolute number of graduates in the classes of 2014 and 2015 employed in full-time, long-term, bar-passage-required, non-school-funded jobs rises. No one disputes that employment percentages will improve on account of there being fewer graduates, but the best way to show that graduates are finding jobs is … showing that graduates are finding jobs. Similarly, I’d like to see evidence that grads are finding better jobs. That could be the NALP reporting that grads are shifting into lawyer jobs at law firms larger than the 2-10 bracket, though 2013 toed in the right direction.

No. Graduates Employed by Size of Firm (NALP)

You can slag biglaw all you want, but it tends to pay better. Likewise, wage growth in the 25th percentile for law grads is absolutely necessary if anyone wants to convince me that law school is better than going back to college for a more lucrative bachelor’s degree, but technically that’s a slightly different issue.

* Note: At this time I’m not too concerned that the ABA’s decision to give law schools a tenth month to report their graduate employment data will substantially impair any comparisons to previous years.

Continue reading

Voodoo Links

I’ve been asking myself recently what standards a topic needs to meet before I’ll post on it, and while there’s no point in giving a list of criteria, one thing I try to look for is information readers won’t find at other sites, particularly more heavily trafficked ones. Consider it my offer to readers. So, I thought to myself that maybe I should occasionally point out instances of good work that teaches me something I didn’t know. (It would certainly give me an opportunity to practice not being a meanie in my writing.) I can think of two examples from the last month+.

Law School Truth Center, “LSAT Scores Do Not and Cannot Predict Bar Exam Scores,” Outside the Law School Scam, November 20, 2014.

I have to thank the normally satirical LSTC for playing it straight and explaining item type theory and equating to me. It didn’t just illuminate how standardized testing works; it spared my readers disputable longitudinal comparisons between law school classes. I especially appreciate the post because until then I had no interest in last summer’s bar exam debacle.

Mitchell D. Weiss, “Don’t Believe the Hype: There’s Still a Student Loan Crisis,” Credit.com, January 5, 2015.

June 2014 blessed us with a policy paper by Beth Akers and Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution ridiculing our assertions that there’s a student loan “crisis” on the horizon. Weiss does us a favor by summarizing many of the Brookings Institution’s policy papers over the last year arguing that the student debt system is fine but it’s those irresponsible kids taking on too much debt that’s the problem. I’m wary of giving Brookings any more attention than it already gets: The last thing we need is more genuflecting to D.C. think tanks, but Weiss’ contribution is a solid analysis for anyone interested in Brookings’ position on higher education and student loan debt.

I hope to get to substantive stuff soon.

Marketplace Has No Idea Why Law School Enrollment Is Down

In, “Why Law School Enrollment Is Way Down,” Marketplace teaches us:

While law school was once seen as a golden ticket [Ugh, so lazy.] to a financially stable future, the profession is becoming less popular. New technology is helping lawyers work more efficiently, allowing them to handle a bigger workload. But it also cuts down on a firm’s need to hire more lawyers, which means fewer graduates nab full-time permanent jobs.

Tell that to the productivity data. In terms of output per hour, the legal sector is 8 percent less productive than in 2007. It may be that potential applicants are hearing stories that law firms are filled with robo-lawyers, but if so it’s thanks to misinformation from outlets like Marketplace, not facts. It boggles my mind that reporters can get away with simply passing memes off as explanations for people’s behaviors. It’s not something that should be taught in journalism programs.

Speaking of higher education, that same article tells readers they should like another published in October titled, “Arne Duncan: Education Beyond High School Is Absolutely Necessary.” Oh joy. According to the interview:

When asked if he thought everyone should go to college, Duncan said he believed everyone needed additional education beyond high school: “If young people drop out of high school today, they are basically condemned to poverty and social failure. There are no good jobs out there… the economy has changed.”

I have no idea why Obama didn’t replace Duncan in his second term. The education secretary strikes me as an uninspiring one-term posting, like every other no-name in executive branches you didn’t even know existed. But we’re stuck with Duncan for a while longer, and with quotes like these, we can expect a warm seat for him at the student loan welfare Lumina Foundation. I forget if I’ve said this before, but in the coming decades when politicians start flinging mud at one another over the student loan write-down, Incompetent Arne will be long gone. At least the voters deciding the issue will have watered-down credentials to help them make the right policy choices.

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