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.

The “Laws” of Economics

Economics has few “laws”. The most notable is the Law of Demand, which simply states that there is an inverse relationship between the price of a thing and how many units people are willing to buy (i.e., when the price goes down (up), people buy more (less)). The Law of Demand is basically just the culmination of the most basic observations of human behavior; specifically, The Basics with which I started this blog.

There are a few other things that sometimes get labelled as “laws” in economics textbooks. The “law of supply” only applies to things still actively produced, for which the necessary inputs are available; but in general, the more people are willing to pay for something, the more of it producers will try to produce. The “law of diminishing returns”–typically applied in the context of production–assumes there is at least one fixed input that constrains the marginal productivity of the rest. It’s more a rule of thumb than a “law.” But it is also analogous to Rule #3 in The Basics: More more is less better.

Whether we consider them “laws” or not, one thing is for certain: when we ignore these basic principles, we do so at our own peril. And that brings me to the motivation for this post; namely a recent blog post by “The Edgy Optimist” (aka Zachary Karabell) at Reuters.com titled “The ‘laws of economics’ don’t exist.” Continue reading The “Laws” of Economics