The Real Student Loan Problem isn’t Interest Rates

It’s the cost of a college education.

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. First, federal aid could be capped, perhaps at a national average, or simply indexed to the consumer-price index, making it harder for schools to raise tuition willy-nilly. 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, and second to a realistic career path that would enable them to service that debt over time. At the very least, schools would be more likely to warn students of the risks.

At some point, it becomes obvious that the cost of a college education is not worth the return on investment.

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