The Old College ROI

Today I ran across a graphic from The Economist in March 2015 that shows the return on investment (ROI) to different college majors by level of selectivity of the college the student attended. The charts show that while college pays, it does not pay the same for everyone. More specifically, it does not pay the same for every major. Engineering and math majors have high ROIs, followed by business and economics majors. Humanities and arts majors have lower ROIs on average.

If you’re underwhelmed by the realization, you should be. After all, it’s really common sense and something I’ve written about before here. But it’s a fact that seems incomprehensible to so many (for starters, count the number of votes Bernie Sanders has received). This is imCollege ROIportant because college education is subsidized not by degree, but by the expense of the school the student chooses. An arts major at Stanford is paying the same tuition as the engineering major–and likely borrowing just as much money–but their returns on investment for those educations are vastly different. Put another way, the value of those degrees are very different, even if the price of the degrees is the same.

Interestingly, though, the ROI by degree does not change much based on the selectivity of the school (typically a measure of quality). Looking at each of the degree types, there is very little obvious correlation between selectivity and ROI (taking into account financial aid; i.e., based on net-cost not listed tuition). While students from more selective schools may earn higher starting salaries, the higher cost of their education means they are getting no better return on their financial investment than students of similar majors at much less selective schools.

This suggests that the market for college graduates is actually working pretty darn well when you take into account students’ degrees (i.e., the value of the human capital they develop in college).

It also suggests we should reconsider federal policy for student loans. If we insist on continuing to subsidize higher education (and all the ills that creates), at least we could do it more intelligently by tying loan amounts to degree programs rather than tuition levels.

How Federal Student Loans Increase College Costs

A recent paper by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows how increases in federal student loan programs–intended to make college more affordable–actually increase the cost of college. As with other markets, when the supply of money available to pay tuition increases, the price of tuition rises. The abstract reads:

When students fund their education through loans, changes in student borrowing and tuition are interlinked. Higher tuition costs raise loan demand, but loan supply also affects equilibrium tuition costs—for example, by relaxing students’ funding constraints.To resolve this simultaneity problem, we exploit detailed student-level financial data and changes in federal student aid programs to identify the impact of increased student loan funding on tuition. We find that institutions more exposed to changes in the subsidized federal loan program increased their tuition disproportionately around these policy changes, with a sizable pass-through effect on tuition of about 65 percent. We also find that Pell Grant aid and the unsubsidized federal loan program have pass-through effects on tuition, although these are economically and statistically not as strong. The subsidized loan effect on tuition is most pronounced for expensive, private institutions that are somewhat, but not among the most, selective.
But the effects don’t stop with rising tuition. This increased demand for college education also exacerbates income inequality by inflating the supply of college graduates. (See this piece by George Leef for a full overview of both the NY Fed paper and the income inequality effects).
It’s not rocket science. It’s pretty simple supply-and-demand stuff, actually. No matter how good the intentions, policies that ignore these effects tend to do more harm than good. In this case, generous federal student loan programs not only lead to increases in tuition that result in even higher loans, but reduce the earning power of graduates (on average) and decrease their ability to repay those loans. A pretty perverse circle of effects indeed.

(Not-so) Public Higher Education

NPR reported yesterday on a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report which finds that as of Fiscal Year 2012 (the 2011-12 school year), more of public colleges’ revenues came from students’ tuition than from state (public) funding. The following graph from the GAO report shows the breakdown in revenue sources over the previous 10 years:

gao-college-funding_wide-4b0e1c3e43499af008def569adef93a7909ae7cb-s700-c85As a faculty member at Missouri’s flagship public university, all I can say is, “Welcome to the party! What took you so long?” At the University of Missouri, tuition topped State appropriations for the first time in 2004. According to the FY13 Budget Book for the University of Missouri System (which includes four autonomous campuses and two hospital systems), State appropriations constituted less than 15% of ScreenHunter_01 Jan. 06 13.57total revenue, with another 2% from State grants. The table to the right shows the breakdown by each “business segment” of the University system. For the flagship campus (MU), net tuition and fees were 40% more than State appropriations. The largest source of income for the University came from “sales and services of educational activities and auxiliary enterprises.” That includes things like Residential Life and Campus Dining (which are also paid by students), Parking & Transportation Services, the University Store (which is much more than just textbooks, but includes those as well), and Athletics (which proudly boasts that it is self-funding from ticket sales, radio and television revenues, licensing, etc.).

The neighboring graph from the University’s 2014 Budget Update shows the breakdown of MU’s Operating Budget revenue, which might be ScreenHunter_02 Jan. 06 14.12considered the heart of the direct educational expenses. It shows that over the past 25 years, State support has dropped from 70% to just 32% of operating revenue. Meanwhile, tuition has increased from just 27% to 62% of operating revenue. And this over a period of time that operating expenditures increased, so tuition is a much bigger slice of an even bigger pie. Looking at the University as a whole (not just operating), students foot the bill for about 33% of total revenues (including room and board) compared to just under 17% in State funding. And that doesn’t include parking fees or bookstore purchases.

Some complain about the cost of higher education skyrocketing, and total expenditures have increased substantially (largely a result of increased administrative expenses). However, when students complain about the costs of higher education, they are focused on their tuition bills. And tuition has gone up at public universities, no doubt. Since 2000, the average annual increase in tuition at MU is about 16% (much of that in the early 2000s), which is much higher than the rate of inflation. But students (and their parents) need to recognize that the reason tuition rates have grown so much is to offset the decline in State appropriations (which not coincidentally, started hitting hard in the early 2000s). Expenditures have gone up nowhere near what tuition has.

Which is all to say, the myth of “public higher education” is really just that; a myth. Yes, there is still some State funding for “public” universities, but it is an increasingly small percentage. Public universities are now much more dependent on tuition–just like private universities–than on State funds. And while that scale may have tipped just recently across the country as a whole, in Missouri it has been that way for quite some time.



Truly Investing In A College Education

Monday I wrote about a proposal in the State of Oregon to adopt an investment-style model for financing college costs at Oregon’s public universities that would allow students to attend with no up-front cost, but would require students to commit to paying a percentage of their future earnings over a number of years. In that post I highlight some concerns about how such a program would/should be structured, but don’t confuse that with thinking the program is a bad idea. In fact, it’s a proven concept–at least when the people running it have a strong incentive to make sure it works.

There is actually at least one for-profit business that provides exactly the kind of college investment funding that the Oregon proposal considers…and it has been operating for over a decade.The company (Lumni) was highlighted in a May 2011 New York Times op-ed along with a follow-up piece. Moreover, Lumni has thus far proven a financial success for students and for investors (yes, it’s an actual investment company), despite the fact that it focused primarily on investments in Latin America, where one might expect it to be more difficult to enforce long-term investment contracts, particularly of the “venture capital” type. Lumni now also offers contracts in the US.

I am not endorsing Lumni and I would caution anyone to do their homework before entering into such a contract with any company, but the longevity of the company suggests that such an investment model for college costs is not only viable, but viable for the private sector. Which may beg the question of whether a State or its universities should be trying to manage such an investment operation themselves.

An Investment Model For College Tuition

As I wrote in a previous post (here), financing college costs is best thought of as an investment in human capital: What’s the cost of college? What’s the cost of financing? What’s the expected return on investment? Does it make sense to finance so much many for such a return? Sadly, too few parents and colleges help students seriously consider those decisions–nor the consequences of choosing poorly. (Of course, it’s in the college’s best interest not to.) Consequently, college grads in the US have over $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt–and for many, little realistic hope of getting out from under it before their own children, or grandchildren, are college-age.

The State of Oregon last week passed a proposal that could radically change the way students pay for public colleges in that state, using an investment model in the human capital students develop. It looks like it could be a great step in a helpful direction…but a step with some serious potential flaws depending on how the actual program is put together. Continue reading An Investment Model For College Tuition

The Student Loan “Crisis” In Context

I’ve been doing some long-over-due cleaning out of old files and papers the past week or so (call it the flooded-basement stimulus program). Among the documents I rediscovered were my student loan payment records. (You’d think that etched stone tablet would be hard to miss, right?) Yes, I did actually pay off my student loans–ahead of time, even. But what struck me was the interest rate I was charged on my subsidized federal student loans: a whopping 8%.

It got me wondering about the current “crisis” over student loan interest rates, which yesterday jumped to a fixed 6.8% (from 3.4%) for most subsidized loans in the coming school year, and how this new rate compared to historical student loan interest rates. A quick look at‘s report of historical student loan rates is very revealing:

  1. 6.8% is the fixed rate that Congress had originally approved for the 2006-07 and 07-08 academic years, before Congress started cutting it down to the recent fixed 3.4% rate. So the jump essentially restores the pre-recessionary interest rates.
  2. Prior to 2006, subsidized student loan rates were substantially lower, but were adjustable-rates, not fixed. Congress set the fixed rate for 2006-07 because the adjustable rate formula was resulting in higher interest rates that year (7.14% in 06-07 and 7.22% in 07-08). Congress apparently foresaw a future of higher interest rates, making a fixed 6.8% seem like a deal. Nice job, Congress!
  3. But then a funny thing happened on the way through the recession–all those adjustable rate loans from pre-2006 suddenly got a lot cheaper as Bernanke and gang pushed interest rates down. Just when Congress thought they “fixed” the student loan problem by fixing interest rates, they instead cost students (and taxpayers) millions of dollars in extra interest payments (or loan defaults, in the case of taxpayers). Students paying on loans made prior to July 2006 paid only 2.47% interest in 2010-11 compared to 4.5% for loans made that year….or 6.8% for loans made in 2006-08. FinAid doesn’t have numbers up for 2011-12, but given where interest rates have been it is a safe bet that the adjustable rate was still below the 3.4% for loans made that year. Nice job, Congress!

And therein lies the heart of the current debate: Continue reading The Student Loan “Crisis” In Context