student loans

Council of Economic Advisors: College Pays. Grad School? Sh!

Or, “The Reality Behind AEI’s Reality Behind the Student Debt ‘Crisis'”

Speaking of student loans, I am directed to the American Enterprise Institute’s response to the Council of Economic Advisor’s (CEA’s), “Investing in Higher Education: Benefits, Challenges, and the State of Student Debt” (pdf).

Because I try to deliver early on my post titles rather than bury them, here’s the report’s chart on the crucial but under-emphasized dispersion of earnings by educational attainment for 35-44 year-olds with payroll incomes. (This cohort doesn’t seem so representative to me of recent student borrowers—and not in a good way, but that’s a different issue.)

CEA--State of Student Loans--Figure 5

Eyeballing the chart, more than a quarter of graduate-degree holders earn less than the median 4-year-degree holder in the same age bracket, and the bottom 25 percent of grads earn about $45,000 or less. The B.A.s earn between about $20,000 and $130,000 while the grads make roughly between $30,000 and $170,000. Graduates in between the 75th and 90th percentiles haul in nearly half the total difference. This wide dispersion cries for more analysis because graduate borrowing amplifies student debt loads. High debts and low incomes, even for this small group of debtors, tend to discredit the human capital hypothesis and the purpose of student lending.

But back to the reality behind the reality behind the- etc.

Critical readers should always be on their guards whenever someone characterizes the “student debt crisis.” Frequently it’s a strawman of the crisis writers want to discuss rather than how much of the unpayable debt will be written down in the future. In the AEI’s case, the crisis is, “[T]he macroeconomic impact of high debt levels.” Here, AEI takes this to mean the stock of $1.3 trillion of debt.

The AEI post turns to its education scholars, startlingly Jason Delisle, who perhaps has moved on from the New America Foundation. Delisle focuses first on the claim that “student debt is holding back the economy.” The CEA report attempts to discredit this position in six ways. One, student debt is not as big as the mortgage bubble (which I don’t think I’ve seen anyone argue for a few years now). Two, hardship today will be offset by the future productivity unleashed by education. Three, everyone borrowed student loans when the opportunity costs were lowest, so high debt levels are in step with the economy and not undermining it. Four, student debt is only slightly reducing homeownership among young people. Five, student loans only reduce auto debt for high-balance debtors. Six, student-loan debts reduce small-business formation and their incomes somewhat, but other factors are involved.

The study concludes, “Had the same students received an education without as many loans, the recovery would likely have been stronger, but not substantially so. Most individuals, and the economy as a whole, will benefit from the education made possible by student loans” (56).

In other words, the Obama administration is asking everyone to double down on its hope that all this education will pay off someday and the government won’t have to write down hundreds of billions of dollars in unpayable education debt, whether by forgiveness promises in repayment plans or new legislation. It’s a theme that crops up elsewhere in the report, and it suffers from two problems. One, higher education doesn’t correspond to higher aggregate incomes; rather it seems to be swapping high-school grads with college grads while keeping incomes flat. If college boosts incomes like video-game power-ups, then we’d expect exponential growth in aggregate incomes, but we’re not. And anyone who thinks the payoff will come later must explain why intervening variables aren’t involved, e.g. occupational differences, which would explain the wider earnings dispersions for the credentialed. The CEA gives us no confidence in its education bet.

Problem number two is that the report tends to side against studies produced by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (especially those by Meta Brown, et al.) in favor of research producing more satisfying results. The impacts might be trivial, but the NY Fed found that youngish student debtors weren’t getting mortgages or were more likely to live with their parents than the unindebted (links buried here). Meanwhile, the report shoos away the Bennett hypothesis by claiming a lack of consensus, with the caveat that there may be some “administrative bloat” in colleges and universities. Consensuses are tough rhetorical animals to wrestle with and should require significant evidence to prove. A few studies here and there will not do it.

So back to AEI. When Delisle writes, “[Advocacy groups] say student debt is forcing people to delay things like buying a house, starting a family, all productive things. This report is pretty clear that isn’t the case,” he’s wrong. The report clearly concedes that student debt is negatively affecting the economy, albeit to a small degree, and thanks in part to wishing away contrary NY Fed studies and insisting that all the education will pay off someday.

To clarify, student debt is a notable if not primary contributor to a generational disaster dominated by the trade deficit or slack aggregate demand—and new student borrowing is declining—but the CEA report isn’t the source to show it. So that’s a strike against Delisle.

He asks:

Why are millions of borrowers flocking to enroll in a program [IBR, PAYE, REPAYE, etc.] that allows them to cap their student loan payments at a small share of their income if the return on an educational investment are large? Something seems amiss there. I’ve done a lot of work showing that the income-based repayment program is too generous as a result of Obama administration changes, which may explain this disconnect.

I’ve answered the first question already: There is no large, aggregate return to higher education. As to Delisle’s work on the changes to IBR, it’s never demonstrated that the programs are too generous because it’s based on lopsided, self-verifying hypotheticals. In fact, according to a GAO study, in 2014 only 2 percent of debtors in IBR or PAYE plans earned more than $80,000, so Delisle’s mythical IBR deadbeat is not a serious policy concern. Amusingly, Delisle’s reaction to the GAO study at the time was to blame debtors for not making enough money, gasping that they’d use IBR plans for long-term rather than short-term debt relief.

AEI then turns to resident scholar Andrew Kelly, who writes, “Lower interest rates [proposed by Democrats] won’t help folks with small balances who aren’t repaying nearly as much as they’ll help those with average or large balances, most of whom have no trouble repaying because they have the highest educational attainment!”

I have problems with the Warrenian interest-rate proposals too, but Kelly makes the frequent mistake of flipping the income and debt variables to conclude that high-balance debtors are deadbeats, even though the CEA report shows a wide income dispersion for graduate-degree holders.

I admit I didn’t give the CEA report a thorough read, but it looks like the AEI scholars didn’t either.

Office of Management and Budget: +$1.1 Trillion in Direct Loans by 2026

…Which is down from $1.4 trillion by 2025 as predicted last year.

Every year in July the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) publishes its Mid-Session Review of the budget, which includes the Federal Direct Loan Program, and projects its future. The federal government’s direct loans consist primarily of student loans, but there are a few other programs in there. However, federal direct loans do not include private student loans, but these are a small percentage of all student loans. Thus, the OMB’s measure is both over- and under-inclusive of all student debt, but it covers most of it.

The OMB classifies direct loan accounts as financial assets totaling $1.144 trillion in 2015. According to the office’s projections, by 2026 this figure will grow to $2.213 trillion—93 percent.

Projected Direct Loan Balances (OMB, Billions Current $)

(Source: OMB FY2017 Mid-Session Review (pdf))

As with previous years, the current direct loan balance is below the OMB’s past projections. For FY2012, it predicted the balance would be $1.363 trillion by 2015, $219 billion (19 percent) higher than what actually occurred. Even last year, the OMB’s estimate for 2015 was still high by 4 percent. Here are the OMB’s direct loan projections going back to FY2010.

Direct Loan Balance Projections (OMB Billions Current $)

Because the OMB expects GDP to grow as well over this time period (we’d have bigger problems than student loans if it didn’t), the ratio of direct loans to GDP will level off below 8 percent over the next decade.

The OMB’s measure of direct loans is the net amount owed to the government, and the annual changes to that amount are not the same as the amount lent out each year to students. The Department of Education tracks its lending, and I last discussed it here. As of 2015, fewer students were borrowing from the federal government, so lending appears to be declining. The newly implemented gainful employment rule might further reduce student lending as well. These factors may explain why the OMB’s projections keep falling short. Consequently, I don’t believe student debt will exceed $2 trillion.

CBO: $1.3 Trillion in New Federal Student Loans by 2026

Each year the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides its baseline projections for the federal student-loan program. The projections include the total amount of new federal student loans that the office believes will be issued, future interest rates, and subsidy costs, i.e. whether the government will make or lose money on the loans. This year, the CBO projects that the government will lend an additional $1.3 trillion to students between FY2016 and FY2026. The figure is largely unchanged since the 2014-2024 period, discussed here.

Subsidy Rates

The CBO uses an accrual-accounting methodology to determine the present value of federal loans. This essentially means discounting the estimated cash flows of student loans against government securities with the same maturities. If student loans make more money than buying government debt would, then the loans are valuable. Accrual accounting does not include the market risk that a private lender would consider when making a student loan, which is why many people advocate fair-value accounting. It’s a surprisingly contentious issue, which I elaborate in the student debt data page, because under fair-value accounting, the government loses money on student loans.

Under accrual accounting, the CBO projects negative subsidy rates for federal student loans; that is, it sees the government making money on its lending. All student loans made in 2015 will make an estimated 13.9 percent return. Of interest to law-school watchers: Unsubsidized Stafford loans and Grad PLUS loans issued in FY2016 will make 19.2 percent and 18.9 percent returns, respectively. Oddly, Parent PLUS loans appear to be the most profitable for the government.

CBO Table 2This year, however, the CBO included fair-value estimates of federal student loans. Under these, the government loses about 12 percent of its investment on student loans every year until FY2026. Unsubsidized Stafford loans and Grad PLUS loans lose about 5 percent in 2016, but the losses increase over the decade. Parent PLUS loans remain profitable.

Note also that the CBO believes the net number of loans will rise during the decade. It’s already evident that federal-student-loan borrowing is declining.

CBO Table 6Under accrual accounting the student loans will net the government $85.2 billion; under fair-value accounting the government will lose $145.1 billion. This isn’t a lot of money for the government, actually, but it could obviously be redirected to better uses.

Interest Rates

A crucial variable affecting subsidy rates, for both accounting methodologies, is the CBO’s projection of future interest rates. Two years ago, the office believed interest rates would rise from less than 2 percent in 2013 to 5 percent in 2018. This year, the CBO estimates that interest rates will rise to only 3.4 percent in 2018 and 4.14 percent starting in 2022.

CBO Table 4I believe the current interest-rate predictions are more plausible than the office’s estimates two years ago. The interest rate on 10-year government bonds has been falling this year, so the CBO may be overly pessimistic again for FY2016.


In all, I think the CBO is overly pessimistic with these assumptions. Student borrowing is declining, and there isn’t much of a reason to believe interest rates will rise. This doesn’t mean the government won’t make bad loans, or that the skills and knowledge they pay for will make the workforce more productive, but it’ll probably be less than $145.1 billion.

Robots Won’t Take Your Profs’ Jobs

I’m going to weave a few themes together for you today; it’ll make sense by the end.

We begin with a friend’s comment last week about robots taking everyone’s jobs. I called him on the lump-of-labor fallacy—there isn’t a fixed amount of work to be done in an economy and therefore technology only creates jobs. You can argue the fallacy as much as you like, but don’t talk about robots taking our jobs until you’re aware of it.

I wrote about robots in the past, when Paul Krugman popularized it in December 2012. I’ve revisited it and found an interesting exchange between Sandwichman and Nick Rowe that I missed last year.

To summarize: Sandwichman argued that the lump-of-labor fallacy is really Say’s Law in disguise. Say’s Law is to me a confusing, contentious tautology that evades a concise rendition. My crack? An economy’s production supplies it with sufficient purchasing power to consume that production. Thus, under normal circumstances there can be no general surpluses, including labor. Keyensians, including Krugman, reject the strict use of Say’s Law but for some reason still point at the lump-of-labor fallacy.

Rowe countered that technology’s impact depends on people’s preferences and money. People can simply consume more of what they make, or the central bank needs to give them more money to increase their consumption. I didn’t like some parts of Rowe’s model, but his last, parenthetical paragraph closes the issue perfectly: Technology is only a problem if it displaces workers from land.

I’m starting to think that maybe just about all productivity advances substitute for land and not labor, which is good. The converse is rare, e.g. Dutch disease scenarios where technology makes it easier and more profitable to extract oil than pay workers to make stuff. The workers don’t get the benefits, unlike the landowners, and they can’t leave the country. The land question precedes and supersedes any discussion of technology.

Theme number two is “cost disease,” the explanation of higher college tuition costs on lack of productivity improvements in lecturing. The illustration for cost disease is a string quartet, which takes the same quantity of labor to produce as ever. Cost disease came up twice in the legal-education context in the last few weeks. Once by a dean claiming that scambloggers ignore it, and again by a study pointing at federal student lending as the fuel for higher college tuition, aka the Bennett hypothesis.

I chewed on these two ideas while at … the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which was performing Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring with some other stuff for padding. It was a real treat, and right at the finale of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor*, it all came together. It was a really rewarding feeling.

(* Mozart only composed one other piece in a minor key. I have absolutely no ear to tell keys, but it was lovely.)

So, what does last year’s lump-of-labor discussion tell us about cost disease?

We can set up a model just as Rowe did for Sandwichman, but instead of labor hours, as a good Georgist I’ll use land. 60 people live and work on 60 hectares; 30 grow apples and 30 grow bananas, one each of everything. (Numbers divisible by 12 are always good.) Nobody wants their own type of product, so they trade for the other. Someone stumbles on an apple-growing process that doubles productivity. One of three things happens:

(a) The apple growers each double their output, leaving the bananas constant. 30 hectares grows 60 apples, 30 hectares grows 30 bananas. The ratio of apples to bananas doubles to 2:1, but bananas’ share of the output has fallen to one third. The apple growers really want those bananas.

(b) Banana growers really want their apples, so 20 apple growers double their output, but 10 apple growers switch to banana cultivation. 20 hectares creates 40 apples, and 40 hectares creates 40 bananas. This situation creates an equilibrium for the ratio of apples to bananas, 1:1.

(c) Same as (b), but the 10 hectares shifted to banana production go to a third commodity. This situation is essentially identical to (a), since bananas are what we care about.

Cost disease says that higher education is like situation (a) (and (c)). Productivity “enables” people to satisfy their preferences for the same stuff when we want it to increase their purchasing power to demand new stuff. Here, the more productivity increases, the more income goes to the unproductive.

Now for the twist: If banana-production technology never improves, and people’s appetite for bananas doesn’t wane, we can say that the supply of bananas is inelastic—insensitive to changes in price. But that’s exactly what proponents of the Bennett hypothesis argue: Higher education is a positional good, so educators absorb money lent to students to buy it.

So what’s the difference between the Bennett hypothesis and cost disease? Formally, they’re the same, so the policy responses should be the same: Lending money to people to buy educations that don’t respond to price changes is no different than increasing their productivity, ergo don’t lend the money. Just as Sandwichman argued that Say’s Law is the lump-of-labor fallacy, so too is the cost disease really the Bennett hypothesis.

The function of cost disease, though, I think is different. It’s raised to neutralize the positional-goods argument implied by the Bennett hypothesis. It’s not that education is a rate race, they argue; rather, it’s that we can’t make the rat race better.

If that sounds like a non sequitur, it’s because it is, but with logic like that we needn’t worry about robots replacing the profs.

NY Fed: Student Debt Delinquencies Still High in 2015

What started in 2012 just isn’t stopping. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Housing Debt and Credit Report, the percent of student-loan balances that are 90+ days delinquent was about 11.5 percent at the end of 2015, about where it was a year ago. Delinquencies for all other household debts save credit-card debt fell last year:

Student-Loan Delinquencies (2015)

This year, the NY Fed declined to discuss all those bad student loans, unlike last year.

Between fourth quarter 2014 and and the end of 2015, all non-housing debt grew from $3.15 trillion to $3.37 trillion. Student-loan debt accounted for 31 percent of the $220 billion increase.

Meanwhile, looking through Department of Education data, only 51.74 percent of all $1.204 trillion in federal student loans are in active repayment. 21 percent are in deferment or forbearance, and 9.5 percent are in default. Of the $585.8 billion of direct loans in repayment, forbearance, or deferment, $188.2 billion are on IBR or PAYE. Nearly one-third of all direct loans in repayment are in one of these plans, about 15.6 percent of all student loans.

This just doesn’t end. Until it will.

A Thanksgiving Troll From The New America Foundation

The New America Foundation’s article, “Income-Based Repayment Tops Repayment Plan Choice for First Time,” is such blatant policy trolling that you might wonder if it’s still Halloween and not Thanksgiving.

The NAF discovered that income-based-repayment program-enrollment efforts have borne fruit: It’s now the most popular plan among direct loan borrowers. (I haven’t checked myself, but let’s roll with it.) But the NAF’s response is confused: On the one hand, it likes low-income people enrolling in IBR, and it wants IBR to be the default repayment plan. This position is neither unusual or, superficially, disagreeable.

But on the other hand, growing IBR hordes keep the NAF awake at night:

Policymakers have to ask themselves, if college is a good investment, why are borrowers flocking to this insurance program? And why are those trends occurring while other economic indicators, like unemployment rates, are looking pretty good?

The easy answer is that college is not a good investment and “other economic indicators” are not looking pretty good. For one, the unemployment rate isn’t such a good measure of work when so many people leave the labor force.

Here’s the percent of 25-34-year-olds with zero earnings by education.

Percent of 25-to-34-Year-Olds With Zero Earnings by Education

(More here.)

In 2014, 13 percent of college-educated young ‘uns weren’t working; in 1997 that was 7.1 percent, equivalent to 640,000 people. It’s possible many of these folks are back in school, but that just tells us the opportunity cost of education is low—because there aren’t any good jobs. And yes, incomes are down too.

The NAF then trots out (trolls out?) the discredited IBR deadbeat after linking to the GAO finding that only a fraction of IBR enrollees have high incomes:

Maybe IBR enrollment is not a good proxy for borrowers falling on hard times — at least not since the Obama administration … [changed the program] from what was a safety net in 2009 to a heavily subsidized loan program for even well-off borrowers if they borrow for graduate school.

Except the NAF’s research on the changes to IBR didn’t show anything of the kind. Its “Safety Net or Windfall” report never documented a single IBR deadbeat. Instead it crafted nothing other than hypotheticals: Its “narrated borrower examples” even included a law grad who went to California Western, a law school with bad employment outcomes, yet managed to start a job at $65,000 per year. After ten years “Robert” miraculously switched to a job that paid him more than $100,000 per year, and after 25 years, he was make more than $200,000.

Why not just say that he inherited $40,000,000,000 from his wealthy uncle who also happened to be the pretender to both the Qing dynasty’s and Ottoman Empire’s thrones? It’d still fit the NAF’s definition of research.

In truth, only 14 of California Western’s 219 graduates in 2014 found full-time, long-term work at law firms with more than 25 lawyers. 58 were either unemployed or couldn’t be found. The Pay-As-You-Earn changes to IBR benefited these people quite a bit because they will never repay their loans anyway. Income is the independent variable, not debt, and it’s pretty unlikely that after 30 years any California Western grads will be earning $240,000 annually like “Robert”—unless you live in the NAF’s world where one can pass off fantasy as policy analysis.

Because the economy is improving, the NAF reasons, there must—must—be another reason those folks are signing onto IBR:

Borrowers may be enrolling in IBR because they know a good deal when they see one. And as word gets out, more and more students are likely to borrow larger sums to pursue graduate school because they plan to use IBR. That is especially true if they qualify for earlier loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness benefit. [Emphasis original.]

If this were true, then we’d expect law-school enrollments to swell, even at schools where the credential leads nowhere. Hey, who are students to argue if the government gives Grad PLUS dollars toward their living expenses and not demand they pay it back?

Except that’s still not happening, even three years after the NAF’s Kevin Carey predicted it would. It’s more likely that prospective applicants are sensitive to whether graduate programs lead to jobs at the other end, not whether they can get free money today. Here’s law school applicants:

Applicants, Admitted Applicants, 1Ls

(More here.)

I’ve asserted elsewhere that the law-school applicant crunch has slowed because of articles blathering about how now is the best time ever to go to law school. IBR is a secondary concern, if at all. Really, it’s bizarre that anyone would think that applicants are sophisticated enough to base their decision to go to law school on the existence of IBR but shallow enough to overlook evidence suggesting that J.D.s do not lead to long-term professional careers.

Moving on, the NAF then appears to argue that the Obama administration is wrong to characterize IBR as an insurance policy against student-loan defaults because defaults are still increasing. The NAF says this is a “strange trend” even though it offers no reason to believe that savvy borrowers might be signing on to IBR instead of defaulting, while others haven’t received the message. Maybe both types of borrowers have low incomes and can’t otherwise repay their loans in full, but this assumption negates the NAF’s position that the economy is improving. Oh well.

Finally, the NAF worries that outstanding student loans are growing despite falling issuances because either (a) debtors’ incomes are alarmingly low, or (b) IBR is too generous. Again, only a few paragraphs earlier, the NAF cited the GAO study that found 80 percent of IBR enrollees earn $20,000 or less. Incredible. The ghoulish IBR deadbeat lives on.

So there you have it: In one post the NAF starts by arguing that more people should enroll in IBR to avoid default and then concludes that we should be troubled by … more people enrolling in IBR to avoid default. If it’s (a), then the problem is underemployment and low-wage jobs, not IBR; if it’s (b), then the problem is excessive government lending for unneeded education, not IBR.

That’s enough troll, I’m ready for turkey now. Enjoy your Thanksgiving, too.


Post-script: In case any of you were wondering, Congress can change or revoke IBR at any time because the Higher Education Act is incorporated by reference into student-loan promissory notes. Because the number of IBR variants is increasing, it’s probable that the government is hoping to simplify all of them into one that will probably not be so generous to graduate students as PAYE is. This is a compelling reason to stay away from grad school just because IBR is around. (More here.)

How Many PSLF Deadbeats Are There?

Answer: Don’t Ask The Wall Street Journal.

According to Josh Mitchell’s, “U.S. Student-Loan Forgiveness Program Proves Costly,” 295,000 people are signed up for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which cancels federal student loans after 10 years of payments with no tax liability afterwards, unlike other income-based repayment plans.

But before going further, a few compliments:

(1) The WSJ is correct that PSLF is a “forgiveness program,” in contrast to at least one past instance when the WSJ called IBR a “student-debt forgiveness program.” More accurately, IBR is a monthly-payment-reduction program.

(2) Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever defended PSLF, so the WSJ’s examples of doctors taking advantage of the program, even though there’s a good chance they could repay their loans, are more believable than past reporting.

(3) Again, it’s nice to see the spotlight turned away from law grads.

However, the WSJ still doesn’t answer the question: How many of the 295,000 debtors (and projected 600,000 over the next decade) on PSLF will earn high enough incomes to compromise PSLF? Does the program work on net? If the IBR deadbeat is a myth, then shouldn’t we be just as critical of the PSLF deadbeat?

I don’t really have a dog in the PSLF fight, and it should be fairly easy to reform it to take the advantages away from the deadbeats, but the right questions still aren’t being asked. If the unfair beneficiaries are few in number, then they shouldn’t be sensationalized. (Amusingly, the New America Foundation argues that PSLF should be eliminated entirely because the WSJ made it look so bad that it could lead to further backlash against IBR, which, of course, the NAF has never engaged in.)

Speaking of asking the right questions: Is the problem PSLF, or is it the Grad PLUS Loan Program?