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Economic Outlook: For-Profit Failures Further Support Free Community College Plan

Your Student Government '13 to '14

New Research:

On Thursday (9/10), two researchers — Adam Looney of the Treasury Department and Constantine Yannelis of Stanford University — released an analysis of a new database that offers much more detail. It matches records on federal student borrowing with the borrowers’ earnings from tax records (with identifying details removed, to preserve privacy). The data contains information about who borrows and how much; what college borrowers attended; their repayment and default; and their earnings both before and after college.

the data suggests that many popular perceptions of student debt are incorrect. The huge run-up in loans and the subsequent spike in defaults have not been driven by $100,000 debts incurred by students at expensive private colleges like N.Y.U.

They are driven by $8,000 loans at for-profit colleges and, to a lesser extent, community colleges. Borrowing for both of these has become far more common in recent years. Mr. Looney and Mr. Yannelis estimate that 75 percent of the increase in default between 2004 and 2011 can be explained by the surge in the number of borrowers at those institutions.

It’s not hard to see why. The traditional borrowers from four-year colleges tend to earn good salaries out of college and pay back their loans, even during the recent years of economic weakness. The typical borrower who left a less selective four-year college in 2010 earned $35,000. For those leaving more selective colleges, the figure was $49,000. Those salaries obviously aren’t lavish, but they’re high enough to let most people meet their initial loan payments — and they tend to lead to bigger salaries in later years.

Borrowers at for-profit and community colleges, by contrast, earn low salaries — a median of about $22,000 for those exiting school in 2010 — and have had difficulty paying their loans.

The new findings are consistent with earlier data — such as statistics showing that default rates are actually lower among borrowers with large loans than among borrowers with small loans.

But the new data, which goes back two decades, shows how much the landscape of borrowing has changed. Today, most borrowers are older and have attended a for-profit or community college. A decade ago, the typical borrower was a traditional student at a four-year college.

Why did the face of borrowing change so rapidly in just a few years? During the recession, millions of students poured out of a weak labor market and into college to improve their skills. Historically, these students would have gone to community colleges. But with state tax revenues taking a nose-dive, community colleges were starved for funds and unable to expand capacity to absorb all of the new students. Students took their Pell Grants and loans to for-profit colleges. Enrollments at these schools spiked, and so did borrowing.

Behind the increase in for-profit college loan defaults is an underlying problem. How did these for-profit schools become so prominent so quickly? During the Great Recession, there was a spike in demand for schools where people could acquire marketable skills cheaply. This is exactly what economic theory told us would happen:

  1. With a larger pool of people looking for work (higher unemployment), employers could be more selective, requiring greater credentials for a given job than they otherwise would have been able to.
  2. As the labor market worsened, the “opportunity cost” of obtaining required skills (foregone wages) decreased.
  3. As people’s income decreased (both as a result of the recession, but also part of a long-term trend of stagnant median incomes versus increasing tuition costs), demand for the “inferior good” (in this case, for-profit and community colleges) increased.

Compounding the issue, many War on Terror veterans we’re returning home, with GI Bill tuition-assistance in hand but little idea of what to do with it.

At the same time, the recession resulted in lower tax receipts, and municipal and state budgetary restraints became more acute. Instead of increasing funding to deal with the predictable influx of students, community colleges faced budget cuts. The resulting surplus of students was readily snapped up by for-profit colleges.

For-profit colleges are, on average, four times more expensive than community colleges, and return poorer graduation rates and career outlooks. In other words, for every one student the federal government paid for to go to a for-profit school, it could have sent four students to community college. Furthermore, those four students would be more likely to graduate and have better career prospects.

People have different reasons for wanting to attend community college. Some people want to learn a specific marketable skill, with no intention of pursuing a bachelors degree (or beyond). Therefore, in order for community colleges to be eligible for new proposed federal subsidies, they should have to offer specialized vocational training programs.

For other people, community college is a stepping stone towards a more advanced degree. For these students, a free community college option would allow them to find out if “college is for them”, without taking out loans (I would argue that the absence of debt itself would lead to better academic outcomes). Another requirement for receiving expanded federal assistance should be making it easier to transfer community college credits to four-year college.

Of course, it is not solely up to community colleges whether four year institutions accept their credits. The Federal Government could, however, use the power of the purse and scale grant eligibility based on a four year school’s willingness to accept credits from community colleges. I bet community college credits would become more transferable if this were the case…

Perhaps some of these reforms are already baked into the Obama plan–if so, good. Either way the government, with the assistance of academic and private sector partners, should develop guidelines to help community colleges meet technical program and transfer-ease requirements.

With these requirements are met, community colleges could better serve their two target groups–returning adult-students looking for technical skills, and out-of-high-school prospective college students who think they want to pursue a bachelors degree, but do not have the conviction and/or financial resources to jump right into a four year college.

If properly tailored, a tuition-free community college plan would not greatly increase government spending. Rather it would be, in large part, a transfer of funding from for-profit (which rely almost exclusively–86% of revenue–on federal grant money to operate) to community colleges, in exchange for reforms that allow community colleges to better serve their students.

Some figures here might help put this “transfer” into context. Obama’s community college plan calls for $1.4 billion in funding in 2016 and $60 billion over the next decade. Compare this to the $32 billion the Department of Education spent on for-profit grants and loans from 2009-2010 alone

Isn’t better educating more people, for far less money (per person), exactly what student aid programs should strive for? Now, to be sure, pushing more people towards community college would increase the cost of the tuition-free plan. As many people have pointed out, to make the plan less costly tuition assistance could be reserved for less wealthy applicants with good academic records (high school grades and/or standardized test performance).

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Economic Outlook: Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity”, But For Who?

Yesterday, Paul Ryan unveiled his budget proposal for 2014, titled “The Path to Prosperity”. Instead of taking his Vice Presidential defeat as a sign that America rejects his fiscal doctrine, Ryan has doubled down on his ideas.

A common criticism of Ryan’s plan during the Presidential campaign was that he never specified how he would achieve a balanced budget, but merely said that cuts will equal this amount, and without raising taxes we will have a balanced budget in 10 years.

The plan is now public domain, and it is safe to say “the devil is in the details”. Here are some highlights of the Ryan proposal:

  • Repeal the Affordable Care Act
  • Cut spending on Education, R & D, cap Pell Grants
  • Cut funding for a trans-American high speed rail and other infrastructure improvements
  • Turn Medicare into a voucher program (ensuring it is underfunded for those with serious chronic conditions)
  • Re-instate the work requirement for Welfare
  • Reduce spending on welfare programs, such as SNAP (food stamp programs)
  • Maintain current high levels of defense spending
  • Does not address the issue of Social Security spending
  • Create a two-bracket tax-system: Reduce top tax rates to 25% (from 39.6), make the lower rate 10% (no more people with 0 or negative tax rates).
  • Reduce the corporate tax rate to 25%, presumably lower capital gains taxes, repeal the Alternative Minimum Tax
  • No additional revenue through closing tax loopholes

The only thing I agree with is Ryan’s assertion that welfare should have its work requirement reinstated. However, this can only occur once unemployment reaches a certain level; you cannot tell people they need to work to receive welfare payments if that work does not exist. By cutting discretionary spending, there will be less government jobs, and the private sector does not seem to feel any need to increase hiring anytime soon despite record profits, so this is really a squeeze on those “takers” that the G.O.P. loves to hate. (Also, this provision was only intended to be temporary as the economy recovers, so the one provision I agree with in Ryan’s budget is not exclusive to Ryan’s budget).

Everything else amounts to class warfare. Cutting spending on education will hurt those who rely on public education (and make Obama’s pre-school / child care programs more difficult to fund, making it harder for lower income workers who cannot readily afford personal child-care). Repealing the Affordable Care Act, reducing Pell grants, and reducing Welfare payments will all disproportionately affect the poorest Americans.

The only discretionary programs that Ryan does not think needs to be cut are defense. This is an odd position, as defense spending accounts for whopping 24% of the 2013 Federal budget (for comparison sake, education (4%) and welfare (11%), do not even combine to come close to defense spending). Yes we have a spending problem, a military spending problem (and social security and medicare need to be overhauled in the long run, but that has nothing to do with getting the American economy producing at potential in the short run), yet somehow the fiscal conservative Ryan found cuts in every other program other than defense.

https://chart.googleapis.com/chart?cht=p3&chs=600x200&chf=bg,s,e8e8ff&chd=t:23,24,4,24,11,2,3,1,3,7&chl=Pensions%2023%|Health%20Care%2024%|Education%204%|Defense%2024%|Welfare%2011%|Protection%202%|Transportation%203%|General%20Government%201%|Other%20Spending%203%|Interest%207%&chtt=Budgeted%20Federal%20Spending%20for%20%20-%20FY%202013

 

On the other hand, Ryan wants to make the wealthy even wealthier. Reducing the tax rates for the wealthiest to 25% (their lowest level in decades), corporate and capital gains taxes (which all go almost exclusively to the richest Americans), will make the rich richer. By levying a minimum 10% tax rate on even the poorest Americans, those who will be squeezed by Ryan’s proposed cuts in discretionary spending will also see their tax bill rise. In effect, Ryan has financed lower taxes for the wealthy with higher taxes for the poor. He has replaced an Alternative Minimum tax for the wealthy with a minimum tax for many people who currently do not pay any taxes (due to being below a certain income threshold and having standard deductions erase their tax bill).

The Democratic plan is, as expected, much more in touch with what America needs:

“The Senate Democratic budget proposal, which began leaking out just as Ryan announced his proposal, would shrink budget deficits by $1.85 trillion over 10 years but not balance the budget. It is largely the work of Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington, who heads the Senate Budget Committee.

It would rely on an equal mix of spending cuts and tax hikes on the wealthy. At the same time, it would create a $100 billion fund for rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges, creating construction jobs.”

This budget relies on short term stimulus to reduce unemployment and get the economy working closer to potential output. It realizes the need to put idle labor to work, while reducing the deficit gradually through a combination of closing tax loopholes and spending reductions. It would keep hard fought victories such as the Affordable Care Act and higher taxes on the wealthy in place, while keeping the deficit at a sustainable level.

Paul Krugman recently wrote an interesting piece on cyclically adjusted deficits:

First, fluctuations in the deficit tend to be driven by the business cycle; when the economy slumps, revenues fall and some kinds of expenditure, like unemployment benefits, rise. You want to take out these “automatic stabilizers” when assessing the underlying state of the budget.”

Second, we don’t have to balance the budget to have a sustainable fiscal position; all we need is to ensure that debt grows more slowly than GDP”

The piece basically highlights that once you account for entitlement spending dropping and GDP increasing as the economy recovers, we already have a sustainable fiscal outlook. The “need” to balance the budget in 10 years is made up, and the benefits of doing so questionable at best (and non-existent at worst). But the social and economic costs, both in the short run and long run of Ryan’s proposal, are real, and they are high.

So when you hear about Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity”, ask yourself who is it really a path to prosperity for? Is it a path to prosperity for those who need help getting there, or those who are already prosperous? Will it increase of decrease inequality and social immobility that has come to define this country?

I will let you draw your own conclusions, as the two plans are essentially the same as they have been since the election.  Obama has recently conceded that a deal may not be able to be reached, that the sides may be too ideologically opposed. This would be unfortunate, but it also is starting to seem like a more and more realistic outcome. “The Sequester” looks mild compared to Ryan’s alternative, and unless the GOP is willing to move considerably from this proposal, it is unlikely a deal will be done until after 2014 congressional elections.

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