Glenn Harlan Reynolds:
Why do students have so much debt? According to a recent study by Mark Perry, a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan at Flint, between 1978 and 2011 college tuition in the U.S. increased at an annual rate of 7.45%, vastly exceeding the rate of inflation and the almost-stagnant rate of growth in family incomes.
The difference has been made up by more and more debt. With costs above $60,000 a year for many private schools, and out-of-state costs at many state schools exceeding $40,000, some young people are graduating with student loan debts of $100,000 or more, sometimes much more. A study released last month by Fidelity Investments found that 70% of the class of 2013 is graduating with college-related debt—averaging $35,200.
According to a recent study by the New York Federal Reserve, “the share of twenty-five-year-olds with student debt has increased from just 25 percent in 2003 to 43 percent in 2012″ and “student loan delinquencies have also been growing.” Almost 12% of student loans are more than 90 days overdue. Student-loan debt, the New York Fed study found, also delays marriage, home purchases and other “adult” decisions that once followed graduation from college.
Now here’s where the real immorality kicks in. The skyrocketing cost of a college education is a classic unintended consequence of government intervention. Colleges have responded to the availability of easy federal money by doing what subsidized industries generally do: Raising prices to capture the subsidy. Sold as a tool to help students cope with rising college costs, student loans have instead been a major contributor to the problem….
If we want to solve the very real problem of excessive student-loan debt, college costs need to be brought under control….
Another way to approach costs is to remove the incentives for universities to accept government-subsidized student-loan money regardless of a student’s prospects of graduation or gainful employment. Under the current setup, incentives run the other way: Schools get their money up front via student loans; if students are unable to pay the loans back, the burden falls on taxpayers (if the loan was “guaranteed” by the federal government), and the students themselves, while the schools get off scot-free.
A serious student-loan fix would change this incentive… Second, schools that receive subsidized loan money could be left on the hook for a percentage of the loan balance if students default. I would favor allowing students who can’t pay to discharge their loan balances in bankruptcy after a reasonable time—say, five to seven years, maybe even 10—with the institutions that got the money being liable to the guarantors (i.e., the taxpayers) for, say, 10% or 20% of the balance.
You can bet that under this kind of a rule, universities would be much more careful about encouraging students to take on significant debt unless they are fully committed first to graduating….