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With the federal Department of Education now overseeing $1.2 trillion in student-loan debt, attention has been driven to the cost of tuition at our institutions of higher education. While it may appear that the causation runs from higher tuition to student debt, it’s more likely that it runs the other way.
When the federal government attempted to increase the number of low-income homeowners by requiring banks to increase the percentage of their loans to low-income households, and by purchasing mortgages through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the result was a sustained increase in housing prices and a vast expansion of mortgage debt. We’re pretty well aware of how that ended up.
We should not be surprised that, as the federal government expanded its role in higher education through Pell Grants and loans to students without regard for their ability to pay the loans back, tuition has risen. Over the past 30 years, tuition has risen by 146 percent at private four-year colleges, to $31,231 (in constant 2014 dollars). The increase for in-state tuition at public four-year institutions has risen 225 percent, to $9,139.
If the government subsidized the purchase of bicycles, encouraged people to purchase bicycles, and gave out below-market loans without a credit check to people who bought bicycles, we would expect the price of bicycles to rise. It shouldn’t be rocket science to see that federal government intervention in the higher-education market has been a factor in increasing tuition costs and is a large factor in the increase in student debt.
(The college at which I teach, Hillsdale College, receives no government money, and its students do not receive any government money, whether it be loans, grants or any other form of subsidy. Even though the latest Princeton Review included Hillsdale among the best colleges in the country, its tuition is about two-thirds that of the average private college.)
A problem with higher education is indeed the ability to finance the acquisition of what economists call human capital — skills and learning that increase one’s ability to produce. There is little collateral for a lender, unlike with mortgages for example. The solution to this problem is not providing loans to anyone who might want to spend some time in college, but rather to implement what Milton Friedman termed “human-capital contracts” some 60 years ago.
Under a human-capital contract, people could invest in the education of college students by paying the tuition of students in return for a claim on the earnings of the student upon graduation. While Friedman discussed this in a 1955 paper, the idea goes back at least to 18th-century political economist Adam Smith. This method of dealing with the inability of low-income individuals to purchase higher education would direct educational resources into the areas that provided the most benefit. Entrepreneurs would seek out high school students who have drive and talent, but are now confined to those in our urban centers with no way to obtain a college education other than by ftaking on debt that is very large relative to the current income of their family.
One can imagine a market developing whereby investors could purchase a pool of contracts, thus reducing the risk that an individual student may not finish school or will fail to find employment upon graduation. High school students will have greater access to higher education and a greater incentive to perform well in order to find investors for their human-capital contract. Rather than graduating with an average student-loan debt of more than $35,000, students will share their incomes for a fixed period of time. One might also note the incentive for owners of the human-capital contract to assist graduates in finding employment.
College-tuition costs that are the unintended consequences of government action have led to proposals for greater government involvement in our education system, such as plans put forth by Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for taxpayer-funded “tuition-free” college. Rather than more government intervention, a market for individuals to invest in the education of those willing to share their future income will not only lead to greater efficiency, but also to the expanded ability of low-income students to obtain a college education, as well as the increased independence of our colleges and universities.Published in