Why SAT Scores Going Down May Be Just Fine

The average score for students taking the venerable SAT exam in 2014-2015 was 1490, seven points below last year’s scores and the lowest score since the writing section was added in 2005. Not surprisingly, this drop is generating a lot of media coverage—much of it focused on how high schools are failing America’s children. But while high schools may very well be a concern (and those of us in colleges shouldn’t get off without criticism, either), I contend that the decline in SAT scores may be just fine.

The simple reason for my lack of concern is that the decline may very well be due to more students taking the exams in response to new state laws and district rules in several states requiring or encouraging testing. For example, Idaho required beginning in 2012 that students had to take the ACT or SAT to graduate—and that the state would cover SAT costs for students. In 2011-2012, 27% of Idaho students took the SAT and got an average score of 1613, while practically all Idaho students in 2014-2015 took the SAT and got an average score of 1372. (The District of Columbia, Delaware, and Maine—the other three jurisdictions where basically everyone takes the SAT—had similarly low scores.) Either Idaho high schools imploded over a three-year window, or the types of students who weren’t previously taking the test didn’t have the same level of ability on standardized tests as the 27% of students who were likely considering selective four-year colleges.

The chart below shows the relationship between the percentage of students taking the SAT and scores (data available via the Washington Post). The R-squared is 0.82, suggesting that 82% of the variation in state-level test scores can be explained by the percentage of students tested in each state.


What I would like to see is some comparisons across similar types of students over time. Among students who signal a clear intent to go to a four-year college, are SAT scores declining? Or is the entire decline driven by different students taking the test? And are students considering college for the first time because they took the SAT and did reasonably well? There is value to everyone taking a standardized test across states (given the differences in state high school exams), but it’s inappropriate to look at trends over time with such large differences in the types of students taking the test.

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Who Would Use Income Share Agreements to Pay for College?

This post first appeared at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Chalkboard blog.

In response to concerns over the rising price of college and increasing amounts of student loan debt, the Obama Administration has worked to expand income-based repayment programs for those with federal student loans. In late 2015 or early 2016, the U.S. Department of Education will likely allow students with any federal loans to enroll in a more-generous version of income-based repayment that would cap monthly payments at 10 percent of discretionary income (i.e., earnings above 150 percent of the federal poverty line) for 20 years for undergraduate students and 25 years for graduate students, with any remaining balances forgiven by the federal government.

Although this new version of income-based repayment has the potential to benefit up to six million Americans with student loan debt, concerns have been raised about this more generous program. First, the price tag is estimated at $15.3 billion over 10 years, or roughly 5 percent of forecasted Pell Grant expenditures during this period. Second, graduate students, who are more likely to have six-figure student loan debt and enroll in income-based repayment programs at higher rates, will see more benefits than undergraduate students with smaller amounts of debt but worse career options. Finally, as more students enroll in income-based repayment plans, colleges have fewer reasons to control costs due to students’ ability to access credit.

An interesting alternative to federal student loans that has emerged in recent years has the potential to shift the financial risk of paying for college away from the federal government and students, instead placing the risk in the private sector. Income share agreements (ISA) function somewhat similarly to income-based repayment plans, as students pledge to pay a predetermined percentage of their annual income in exchange for funds to pay for college. However, unlike federal income-based repayment plans, the percentage of income and the length of the repayment period are negotiated between a private investor and the student instead of being the same across all students. Students who major in economically desirable fields, such as engineering and business, at top colleges are likely to get better repayment terms than students majoring in less-profitable but socially important fields, such as education and nursing, at more typical colleges.

Given the current generosity of income-based repayment programs—and the likelihood that the federal government loses money on many students today—I have to wonder how many students would use ISAs once potential legal issues around their operation in the United States are resolved. Students in less-lucrative fields or those who plan to work in public service careers are unlikely to get better terms from the private sector than the federal government. These students would be likely to continue using federal student loans, although it is possible that ISAs could partially replace Parent PLUS loans as a financing source should parents not want to take out loans for their children when ISAs are available.

This leaves two groups of students who are likely to be interested in ISAs. The first group is those students who are either attending colleges that do not offer their students federal loans (primarily for-profit colleges and community colleges), or those attending short-term training programs such as coding ‘boot camps’ that do not currently qualify for federal student aid. Something in the neighborhood of two million students attend these colleges and programs, which results in a fairly sizable market. However, all of these programs tend to be relatively inexpensive, meaning that the per-student profit for an ISA provider will be fairly small.

The group of students who would be more lucrative for ISA providers would be those students enrolled in profitable degree programs at traditional undergraduate and graduate institutions. Because these programs tend to be expensive, the contract would need to be designed so the provider could make a profit on a large initial investment. However, students could lock in paying a lower percentage of their income than what they would expect to pay under income-based repayment if their expected earnings are high enough.

But students with high expected incomes may stay away from ISAs because they may expect to pay more in an ISA than under the standard federal repayment plan (a fixed monthly payment over 10 years). It would be difficult for ISA providers to undercut the federal government’s price in today’s environment of reasonably low interest rates, but it could be possible for students who have the highest likelihood of graduating and making a large salary because of the relatively low risk these students represent to a provider. Additionally, the presence of post-graduation private loan refinancing options such as Earnest and SoFi give successful graduates a way to lower their loan payments without giving up a share of their income.

Income share agreements have the potential to create another option for students looking to pay for college while seeking assurances they will not be overwhelmed by future payments. However, given the current generosity of federal income-based repayment programs and the likely hesitation of those who expect six-figure salaries to sign away a percentage of their income for years to come, the market for these programs may be somewhat limited. However, the federal government should encourage the development of private ISA providers in order to give students as many options as possible to finance their education while setting reasonable parameters for their operation that protect students from fraud and abuse.

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Trends in Federal Student Loan and Pell Grant Awards

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Federal Student Aid released its newest quarterly update on federal student loan and Pell Grant awards on Friday, and the data (through the end of the 2014-15 academic year) are nothing short of stunning. As shown in the table below, federal student loan volume dropped by nearly $11 billion in 2014-15 to $89.4 billion, the lowest level since before the federal government ended the old bank-based lending program in 2010. Total Pell Grant awards also declined in 2014-15 to $30.3 billion, more than $5 billion below 2010-11 levels. (For more on trends in Pell awards over the last two decades, see my recent post on the topic.)


What could explain such sharp drops in student loan and Pell Grant dollars? Four factors could be at work:

(1) As America slowly continues to climb out of the Great Recession, more students and families may be earning enough money not to qualify for Pell Grants or need to borrow as much in student loans. Unemployment rates are down sharply since 2010, but median real household income has been nearly flat—so this is probably a minor contributing factor.

(2) Americans may be less willing to borrow for college than they were a few years ago, leading to less student loan debt. I’m more concerned about undergraduate students underborrowing for college than overborrowing, particularly as students react to stories about other people’s (atypical) debt loads and concerns about their financial strength. But this is difficult to prove empirically given current data.

(3) Part of the decline in total Pell awards is likely due to changes in the FAFSA formula that reduced the number of students automatically receiving the maximum Pell Grant in 2012-13 and beyond. But this would not explain continued declines in Pell dollars received.

(4) The most likely explanation to me is decreased enrollment due to an improved labor market inducing some individuals to work instead of attend college combined with the collapse of some of the large for-profit college chains. The most up-to-date data from the National Student Clearinghouse (which is available well ahead of federal estimates) show that enrollment has declined at degree-granting colleges each of the past three years, with the largest declines taking place at community colleges and in the for-profit sector. Lower enrollment, particularly among adult students, leads to fewer students taking out loans and receiving Pell Grants.

As the economy continues to slowly strengthen and the for-profit sector continues to sort itself out, I would expect enrollment (and the number of students receiving Pell Grants) to very slowly increase over the next several years. Future trends in student loan debt are less clear. Given the explosion of students enrolling in income-based repayment programs, students (particularly in graduate programs) might have less of an incentive to keep loan amounts in check. Yet, to this point, there doesn’t seem to be a boom in graduate school loans across the board. It would be worth looking at particular colleges with large programs in fields that are especially likely to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness to see if loan amounts there are up by large amounts.

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To Reduce Debt, Give Students More Information to Make Wise College Choice Decisions

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

Higher education has gotten a lot of attention during the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign. All three major candidates for the Democratic nomination – former New York Senator Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders – have proposed different plans to reduce or eliminate student loan debt at public colleges.

However, the price tags of these plans (at least $350 billion over 10 years for Clinton’s proposal) will make free college highly unlikely. Republicans, including leading presidential candidates, have already made their opposition quite clear.

But student loan debt is unlikely to go away anytime soon. What is important for now is that students and their families get better information about tuition costs and college outcomes so they can make more informed decisions, especially as the investments are so large.

What colleges will reveal

Although colleges are required to submit data on hundreds of items to the federal government each year, only a few measures that are currently available are important to most students and their families:

First, colleges must report graduation rates for first-time, full-time students. This does a good job reflecting the outcomes at selective colleges, where most students go full-time.

But full-time students make up only a small percentage of students at some colleges, and data on the graduation rates of part-time students will not be available until 2017.

The price tag of Hillary Clinton’s college plan is too steep.
Marc Nozell, CC BY

Colleges must also report net prices (the cost of attendance less all grant aid received) by different family income brackets. The cost of attendance (defined as tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other living expenses such as transportation and laundry) and the resulting net price are important measures of affordability.

Because financial aid packages can vary across colleges with similar sticker prices, net prices are important to give students an idea of what they might expect to pay.

Colleges that offer their students federal loans must report the percentage of students who defaulted on their loans within three years of leaving college. This measure reflects whether students are able to make enough money to repay their loans. Colleges must also report average student loan debt burdens, so students can see what their future payments might look like.

In addition, vocationally oriented programs must report debt and earnings metrics under new federal “gainful employment” regulations. This provides students in technical fields a clear idea of what they might expect to make.

The Obama administration has promised that additional information on student outcomes will be made available “later this summer”, although they have not said what will be made available.

What don’t we know?

Despite the availability of information on some key outcomes, more can still be done to help students make wise decisions about which college to attend.

Below are some example of outcomes that would be helpful for students and their families to know about.

Although enormous gaps in college completion rates exist by family income, students and their families cannot currently access data on the graduation rates of low-income students receiving federal Pell Grants. (The federal government is purchasing data from the National Student Clearinghouse to fix this going forward.)

Colleges are required to report the percentage of minority students and the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants, but nothing is known about the percentage of first-generation students.

This is of particular interest given the key policy goal of improving access to American higher education; without this information, it is harder to tell which colleges are engines of social mobility.

Students need to have more information.
Lynda Kuit, CC BY-ND

Private-sector organizations such as PayScale and LinkedIn work to fill this gap, but they can only provide a limited amount of information.

How could we know more?

The data needed to answer many of the questions above are already held by the federal government, but in multiple databases that are not allowed to communicate with each other.

The greatest barrier to better information from the federal government is due to a provision included in the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act which banned the federal government from creating a “student unit record” data system that would link financial aid, enrollment and employment outcomes for students receiving federal financial aid dollars. This ban was put in place in part due to concerns over data privacy, and in part due to an intense lobbying effort from private nonprofit colleges.

States, in contrast, are allowed to have unit record data systems, and a few of them make detailed information available to anyone at the click of a mouse.

For example, Virginia makes a host of student loan debt information available in a series of convenient tables and graphics.

Senator Rubio has teamed with Democratic Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Warner of Virginia to introduce legislation overturning the ban on unit record data, although no action has yet been taken in Congress.

A bipartisan push to make more information available to students and their families has the potential to help students make better decisions.

But getting data is only one part of the challenge. The other is getting that into the hands of students at the right time. For that, it is important for the federal government to work with college access organizations and guidance counselors.

Students should be able to access this information as they begin considering attending college. Although additional information may not allow a student to graduate debt-free, it will help him or her to make a more informed decision about where to attend college and if the price tag is worth paying.

The Conversation

Read the original article.

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Comments on Senator Clinton’s Higher Education Proposal

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign released her framework for higher education reform at midnight on Monday morning (see details here and here). The plan, officially listed at a cost of $350 billion over ten years, would move closer to the idea of debt-free public college, require states to increase their spending on public higher education, and potentially embrace some accountability reforms with bipartisan appeal. Below are some of my first-take comments on Sen. Clinton’s proposal, as I look forward to seeing complete details. (I didn’t get an embargoed copy in advance.)

  • This proposal feels like a direct reaction to pressure that Sen. Clinton was facing from the political Left. Both of her main rivals, independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, have supported versions of debt-free public college plans. This has zero chance of passing Congress as is, particularly as the House of Representatives is likely to stay in Republican hands through 2020 and the proposal would be paid for by additional taxes on wealthy Americans.
  • I’m highly skeptical of the $350 billion price tag, or at least when it’s phrased as just being $35 billion per year (roughly equal to federal Pell Grant spending). New federal programs take several years to phase in, meaning that most of the expenses are in later years. (President Obama’s free community college proposal is similar.) Once this plan is fully in place, I’d expect the price tag to be closer to $70 billion per year. All politicians like to massage the ten-year budget window used for cost estimates, and Sen. Clinton is no different.
  • Unlike some other “free college” proposals, Sen. Clinton’s proposal brings at least some private nonprofit colleges to the table by potentially making some of their students eligible for additional aid. This is a politically smart move, as the private nonprofit lobby is strong and many colleges in this sector do good work for students. But as noted in Inside Higher Ed this morning, the leadership of the private college lobby is concerned about any proposals that direct relatively less money to private colleges—as it could affect some institutions’ ability to survive.
  • This plan includes a federal/state partnership, which is typical for Democratic higher education proposals (and a good way to keep the price tag down somewhat). However, as suggested by Medicaid, many Republican governors may not take up the extra funds in exchange for having to assume additional responsibilities. For that reason, Sen. Clinton’s proposal to allow public colleges in those states to bypass the state governments to work directly with the federal government is politically brilliant. But states probably won’t be happy.
  • Much of the price tag will go to reduce interest rates on student loans, both for current students and to allow former students to refinance their loans. This is a big deal for the Elizabeth Warren faction of the Democratic Party—the folks who really make their voices heard in primary elections. But this money will do little to improve access and completion rates, in part because much of the money goes to students after they have left college and because income-based repayment plans make interest rates less relevant. Additionally, students who tried to avoid debt as much as possible (many from lower-income families) won’t benefit as much and may be upset by the subsidies going to higher-income borrowers. I wrote about this in my previous post.
  • There are bipartisan pieces in this plan, including accreditation reform, better consumer information, and risk-sharing for student loans. If Sen. Clinton becomes the nominee, look for her to pivot to the center and highlight some of these proposals.
  • The Clinton staff are claiming this proposal will help bring down the cost of providing a college education, in addition to the price that students pay. I just can’t help but be skeptical when suggested cost-saving areas include administration and technology. Colleges have been facing pressure to tighten their belts for years from states (and many have actually done so), so I don’t think the federal government will be any more successful. But it makes for a good soundbite.

The three main Democratic candidates have now laid out their higher education agendas. Hopefully, the Republican field (which, with the exception of Sen. Marco Rubio, have been fairly quiet on the issue) will follow suit.

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Why “Debt-Free” College Will Upset Some Students

In a major higher education policy proposal, former Senator and current Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton recently announced plans for higher education reforms that come close to debt-free college by increasing grant aid to students and reducing interest rates on current loans. She is following in the footsteps of the other two main candidates for the Democratic nomination—Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley—both of whom have called for some sort of debt-free higher education option.

Putting aside the substantial cost to federal taxpayers ($350 billion over 10 years) and state governments (unknown at this point) for a while, any plan for student loan reforms or debt-free college should make those who know the burden of student loan debt happy. Right? Perhaps not so much. A somewhat similar example comes out of Seattle, where credit card processor Gravity Payments announced earlier this year that its employees would be paid a minimum of $70,000 per year. Again, this is an idea that sounds great—essentially double the wages received by lower-level employees and get an outpouring of good publicity. However, although Gravity signed up a number of new customers, the company has faced some unexpected opposition.

As detailed in a recent New York Times article, Gravity lost a number of existing customers over fears that increasing wages would result in higher future charges, even though the CEO cut his salary to partially pay for the wage increases. That doesn’t really have a corollary to higher education, but the other key point in the article does. Gravity lost two employees making over $70,000 per year as a result of the wage increase for everyone else, as they did not feel valued in a company that paid lower-skilled workers similar amounts to what they earned.

This raises an important point—whenever a program such as a dramatically higher wage floor, student loan reforms that reduce borrowing costs, or debt free college is introduced, at least some similar people who do not qualify for the new program are likely to be upset. Consider the case of a student who just finished repaying $15,000 in student loans by making additional payments in order to become debt-free as soon as possible. She may have sacrificed by working additional hours while in college, attending a less-selective college, and forgoing buying a newer, more reliable car. If the terms on student loan debt change in a way that essentially reward a student who borrowed $35,000 in order to not work in college and enjoy a slightly higher standard of living, it’s reasonable to expect the student with less debt to be upset. (Let’s also not forget the group of lower-income students who are debt-averse and will do anything not to borrow for college. They wouldn’t benefit from any student loan reforms.)

A move to debt-free college works in a similar way, as students who go to college after such a program is instituted get to benefit, while students who attended a few years earlier get nothing. This is happening to some extent in states like Tennessee, where all students can go to a community college tuition-free, and there is no constitutional amendment saying that life must be fair for all. But when plans for debt-free college and reducing student loan burdens get introduced, let’s not forget that some people will get upset because they perceive themselves as getting the short end of the stick. And when presidential campaigns try to build up support, they should do everything they can to make this group happy.

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Analyzing Trends in Pell Grant Recipients and Expenditures

This post first appeared at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center Chalkboard blog.

The U.S. Department of Education recently released its annual report on the federal Pell Grant program, which provides detailed information about the program’s finances and who is receiving grants. The most recent report includes data from the 2013-14 academic year, and I summarize the data and trends over the last two decades in this post.

For the second year in a row, the number of Pell recipients fell, going from a peak of 9.44 million students in 2011-12 to 8.66 million in 2013-14. This drop in recipients is almost entirely due to students who are considered independent for financial aid purposes (typically students who are at least 24 years of age, are married, or have a child). The number of independent Pell recipients fell by 13% in the last two years (to 4.87 million), while the number of dependent Pell recipients fell by just 27,000 students to 3.83 million, as shown in the chart below.


Why has the number of Pell recipients declined over the past two years after such a sharp increase between 2008 and 2010? Two factors are at play. First, enrollment at vocationally-oriented colleges (primarily community colleges and for-profit colleges) increases during recessions as displaced workers choose to receive additional training instead of trying to find a job in an awful economy. When the economy gets better, more of these individuals go back to work and forgo college. Second, as the economy has improved, it is likely the case that some families that barely qualified for the Pell Grant during the recession no longer qualified after obtaining a better job.

The next chart shows that the decline in the number of Pell recipients over the last two years is largely due to community colleges and for-profit colleges. The number of Pell recipients at community colleges has declined by 11% since 2011-12, while the number at for-profit colleges has declined by 20% since 2010-11 after more than doubling in the previous five years. This is consistent with enrollment at some of the largest for-profit chains cratering in the last few years due to both the colleges’ actions (such as the University of Phoenix enacting a trial period for students) and actions from regulators (as evidenced in the recent collapse of Corinthian Colleges).


Expenditures for the Pell Grant program declined for a third consecutive year, going from $35.7 billion (in nominal dollars) in 2010-11 to $31.5 billion in 2013-14. However, in inflation-adjusted dollars, Pell spending has still more than doubled since 2007-08.


The big spike in Pell expenditures around 2009 was due to three factors. First, the start of the Great Recession both induced more students to enroll in college and resulted in more students with financial need who met the Pell Grant eligibility criteria. Second, changes to federal laws that took effect in 2009-10 increased the maximum Pell Grant by over $600 and allowed more students to automatically qualify for the maximum Pell Grant by increasing the income threshold (from $20,000 to $30,000) for an automatic zero expected family contribution. Third, students were allowed to receive a Pell Grant on a year-round basis instead of just two semesters during the academic year, driving up short-term costs but potentially helping students complete their studies quicker. In 2011, the year-round Pell provision was repealed and the income threshold for an automatic zero EFC dropped to $23,000 as cost-saving measures. Congress has shown bipartisan interest in allowing year-round Pell again, but changing the income threshold for an automatic zero EFC appears to be off the table for now.

The final chart shows the maximum Pell Grant award (in inflation-adjusted dollars) between 1993-94 and 2013-14. Contrary to what many might expect, the maximum award has increased from $3,696 in 1993-94 to $5,645 today; the average award has also increased from $2,419 to $3,634. But the increase in the Pell Grant’s real value has not kept up with the increasing price of college in all sectors of higher education. As a result, its purchasing power has fallen by two-thirds since 1979.


For those who are interested in learning more about how much in Pell Grant revenue individual colleges receive, I highly recommend the Title IV program volume reports available on Federal Student Aid’s website. In addition to Pell Grant revenue, this site has information on student loan awards going back to the 1999-2000 academic year.

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Examining Trends in Living Allowances for College

The National Center for Education Statistics released a new report and data on trends in the cost of attendance for different types of colleges, including data from the 2012-13 to 2014-15 academic years. The report shows that, among colleges operating on a traditional academic year basis (excluding most vocationally-oriented colleges), tuition and fees generally increased at a rate faster than inflation among public and private nonprofit colleges over the last two years. However, tuition failed to keep up with inflation in the for-profit sector and allowances for other living expenses (such as transportation and laundry) declined over the past two years after taking inflation into account.

I dug deeper into the data, looking at the percentage of colleges by sector that increased, decreased, or held constant each of the cost of attendance components (tuition/fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other living expenses) between 2013-14 and 2014-15—without adjusting for inflation. I focused on students living off-campus without their family, as colleges have the ability to determine the room and board allowance but do not directly receive any housing revenue for off-campus students. (My blog post on the topic last year ended up connecting me to Braden Hosch at Stony Brook and Sara Goldrick-Rab at Wisconsin-Madison, and we’ve dug deeper into the accuracy and consistency of these estimates in a working paper.)

The results (below) show that for-profit colleges were far more likely to lower tuition and fees than public or private nonprofit colleges. While 75% of public colleges and 85% of private nonprofits increased tuition, just 42% of for-profit colleges did so. For-profits were also more likely to lower books/supplies and other living expense allowances, although the typical allowance was still higher than for nonprofit colleges. A majority of colleges across sectors increased room and board, while most colleges did not change their allowances for books and supplies.


Table 1: Changes in COA components by sector, 2013-14 to 2014-15.
Private nonprofit
Characteristic (2014-15) Public For-profit
Cost of attendance, students living off-campus without family
  Median ($) 18,328 37,900 28,796
  Increased from 2013-14 (pct) 77.8 84.9 56.3
  No change from 2013-14 (pct) 7.2 5.8 8.2
  Decreased from 2013-14 (pct) 15.0 9.3 35.5
Tuition and fees
  Median ($) 4,200 24,670 14,040
  Increased from 2013-14 (pct) 74.9 84.6 42.3
  No change from 2013-14 (pct) 19.5 11.0 38.5
  Decreased from 2013-14 (pct) 5.7 4.4 19.2
Room and board
  Median ($) 8,280 9,000 7,574
  Increased from 2013-14 (pct) 55.1 56.4 59.2
  No change from 2013-14 (pct) 34.6 34.5 28.2
  Decreased from 2013-14 (pct) 10.4 9.2 12.5
Books and supplies
  Median ($) 1,265 1,200 1,380
  Increased from 2013-14 (pct) 37.8 23.1 25.7
  No change from 2013-14 (pct) 54.4 69.3 59.1
  Decreased from 2013-14 (pct) 7.8 7.6 15.2
Other living expenses
  Median ($) 3,742 3,150 5,000
  Increased from 2013-14 (pct) 42.0 35.1 35.5
  No change from 2013-14 (pct) 36.8 48.9 27.4
  Decreased from 2013-14 (pct) 21.2 16.0 37.1
Number of colleges 1,573 1,233 719
SOURCE: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
Note: Limited to colleges reporting costs on an academic year basis.

Yet as was noted in last year’s blog post on this topic, some colleges set room and board allowances that are unreasonably low by any standard. This year, I focused on the 27 colleges that reduced their room and board allowance for off-campus students by at least $3,000 between 2013-14 and 2014-15. Some of the changes may be reasonable, such as Thomas University’s drop from $15,200 to $10,530 for nine months of room and board. But many others are unlikely to meet any standard of reasonableness. For example, Emory & Henry College in Virginia reduced its allowance from $11,800 for nine months to just $3,000, while the College of DuPage in Illinois cut its allowance from $8,257 to $2,462. Good luck trying to rent an apartment and eating ramen on that budget!

Table 2: Colleges with large declines in off-campus room and board allowances, 2013-14 to 2014-15.
Name State 2013-14 2014-15 Change
Emory & Henry College VA 11,800 3,000 -8,800
Atlanta Metropolitan State College GA 10,753 3,160 -7,593
Mount Carmel College of Nursing OH 13,392 6,380 -7,012
Vanguard University of Southern California CA 11,286 4,600 -6,686
Louisiana Delta Community College LA 15,322 8,789 -6,533
Trinity College of Nursing & Health Sciences IL 12,346 5,858 -6,488
Arkansas Northeastern College AR 11,969 6,102 -5,867
College of DuPage IL 8,257 2,462 -5,795
College of the Mainland TX 11,330 5,665 -5,665
Randolph-Macon College VA 9,200 3,650 -5,550
The University of Texas at Brownsville TX 11,495 6,250 -5,245
SAE Institute of Technology-Nashville TN 15,000 10,000 -5,000
Bon Secours Memorial College of Nursing VA 15,000 10,000 -5,000
Thomas University GA 15,200 10,530 -4,670
Davenport University MI 8,692 4,340 -4,352
Southwestern Illinois College IL 8,516 4,280 -4,236
Lee University TN 11,650 7,520 -4,130
Grace School of Theology TX 12,684 8,584 -4,100
Prairie View A & M University TX 11,289 7,197 -4,092
NY Methodist Hospital Center for Allied Health Education NY 17,568 13,496 -4,072
College of Business and Technology-Flagler FL 12,000 8,320 -3,680
College of Business and Technology-Miami Gardens FL 12,000 8,320 -3,680
Anoka Technical College MN 10,356 6,994 -3,362
Central Penn College PA 6,855 3,500 -3,355
St Margaret School of Nursing PA 9,960 6,640 -3,320
Fortis Institute-Port Saint Lucie FL 12,732 9,495 -3,237
Southern California Seminary CA 14,616 11,493 -3,123
SOURCE: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
Note: Limited to colleges reporting costs on an academic year basis.

Why do some colleges feel pressures to cut back living allowances? It’s all about accountability. The amount of loan dollars students can borrow is limited by the cost of attendance, meaning that reducing living allowances (and hence the cost of attendance) reduces borrowing—and potentially the risk of a college facing sanctions for high student loan default rates. The cost of attendance also determines the net price (the COA after grants are applied), an important accountability metric. Since colleges don’t directly benefit financially from a higher off-campus living allowance, they have an incentive to reduce the living allowance while continuing to increase tuition.

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Is Student Loan Debt Really a Crisis?

This article I wrote was originally published on The Conversation.

Americans owed nearly $1.2 trillion in student loan debt as of March 2015, more than three times the amount of debt from just a decade ago. Part of this increase in debt is due to more students attending college, but part can also be attributed to just the borrower holding more debt.

Between the 2007-08 and 2011-12 academic years, nationally representative data from the US Department of Education show the median debt among graduating college seniors who took out loans rising from $20,000 to $26,500. This trend has likely continued over time due to rising tuition prices, meaning that the 70% of students who borrow for a four-year degree can expect to take on over $30,000 in debt in the future. Many students are struggling to repay their loans, as evidenced by high rates of default, delinquency and forbearance due to economic hardships.

These concerns have led some politicians (primarily Democrats) to call mounting student loan debt a “crisis,” while offering potential solutions such as reducing interest rates on student loans, allowing students to refinance their loans at lower rates, or more recently, proposing debt-free public higher education.

But is student loan debt really a crisis?

Debt crisis for whom?

As a professor whose research focuses on higher education finance and accountability policy – and who married an attorney with lots of student loan debt – I look at the student “debt crisis” differently.

I can see the types of students for whom debt is a crisis.

Although there are some exceptions, the crisis is generally not with people like my wife and me, who have advanced degrees and the ability to manage high debt payments due to earning more money (and knowing whether and how to use income-based repayment programs that cap debt payments at a certain percentage of one’s income).

Rather, the crisis is among students with relatively little debt but dismal job prospects.

Research by the New York Federal Reserve Bank found that 35% of students with less than $5,000 in debt defaulted within six years, twice the rate of students with more than $100,000 in debt.

Additionally, these students with low debt amounts and low earnings are disproportionately likely to be dropouts. Sixty-three percent of students who started college in 2003-04 and defaulted on their loans by 2009 were college dropouts, while students with a bachelor’s or associate degree were only 4% of defaults.

Impact of debt

Student loan debt has also been blamed for a range of other negative outcomes in various media articles, including delaying marriage, having children and purchasing a home.

The raw data certainly support the relationship between student loan debt and delaying these key markers of adulthood. It is true that the home ownership rate of young adults without debt exceeded the rate of those with debt for the first time in 2012.

But identifying a causal impact of student loan debt on these outcomes is harder to do: the characteristics of the types of people who went to college and borrowed are different from those who either did not go to college or went to college without taking on debt. For example, students may not borrow for college if their parents foot the bill – and these individuals may also get help putting down a down payment for a house.

Part of the declining home ownership rate among those with debt is likely because college graduates are more likely to move to expensive urban areas than those who did not attend college or take on any debt. Most of the students with little debt are dropouts, not graduates.

In my view, the best empirical research examining whether student loan debt affects home ownership is a working paper by Jason Houle and Lawrence Berger that has found a significant, but small, relationship between student loan debt and home ownership.

However, two different factors could be at play to cause this relationship.

It could be because prospective buyers with debt are unable to obtain a mortgage due to part of their income being needed to pay off student loans. But it could also be because those with debt perceive that they will be rejected if they apply for a loan (even though it may not be true).

Who should be the focus of policy?

Student loan debt is increasingly becoming an unpleasant part of life for millions of Americans, but for many borrowers – particularly those with advanced degrees and high debt burdens – debt is far from a crisis.

For example, the Brookings Institution’s Elizabeth Akers stated in her recent congressional testimony that although the length of student loan payments has increased over time, the average monthly payment has barely increased.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a darling among progressives, pushed back against Akers, contending that the increasing length of payments construes a debt crisis.

While I’m certainly sympathetic to students frustrated by years of student loan payments, policies designed to help struggling borrowers should focus on students with the greatest need.

Students who left college without a degree and are unable to find a decent job are facing a crisis as they struggle to make ends meet. Our limited resources should be used to help these students complete a credential and repay their loans instead of targeting lawyers with six-figure debt loads.

The Conversation

Robert Kelchen is an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.

Read the original article.

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New Evidence on the Bennett Hypothesis and Federal Student Aid

One of the eternal debates in higher education policy is the validity of the Bennett Hypothesis, first stated by William Bennett (President Reagan’s Secretary of Education) in 1987:

“If anything, increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase. In 1978, subsidies became available to a greatly expanded number of students. In 1980, college tuitions began rising year after year at a rate that exceeded inflation. Federal student aid policies do not cause college price inflation, but there is little doubt that they help make it possible.”

Does the availability of federal financial aid give colleges an incentive to keep hiking tuition? I wrote about the existing research on the Bennett Hypothesis last fall, which has been one of the most-read posts in my three years of blogging. At that time, I concluded that although it’s quite possible that federal financial aid is associated with increased tuition, it was hard to draw a solid conclusion given data limitations and the fact that nearly all students can receive federal financial aid—limiting the ability to draw causal inferences.

But two recent studies have pushed the research frontier forward by estimating the relationship between small changes in federal aid and colleges’ pricing strategy. The first is a job market paper by Christopher Lau, a recent economics PhD graduate from Northwestern. Using a rather complicated analytic strategy (read the methods section and see for yourself!), he estimated that for-profit colleges captured approximately 57 cents of each additional dollar of federal grant aid and 51 cents of each additional dollar of federal loan aid. Community colleges captured a smaller portion of federal aid dollars (37% of grant aid and 25% of loan aid), which is unsurprising given that the maximum Pell Grant is larger than community college tuition in nearly all states. Additionally, states often limit the amount that public colleges can increase tuition, reducing the opportunity for strategic behavior.

The second examination of the Bennett Hypothesis is a newly released report from three economists at the New York Fed. They used increases to federal subsidized and unsubsidized loan limits in 2007 as well as maximum Pell Grant awards to see whether colleges responded by increasing tuition. They found that colleges did increase posted tuition (not necessarily net tuition) at a higher rate after loan limits increased, with the magnitude being approximately 55 cents for each dollar of additional Pell Grant aid and 65 cents for each dollar of subsidized loan aid. These effects were largest for the most expensive private nonprofit colleges, where the maximum amount of federal loans ($5,500 for a first-year student) only covers a small portion of tuition.

An even more interesting finding from the Fed paper is that shareholders in for-profit colleges responded favorably to the passage of legislation that increased federal financial aid amounts. They concluded that across three pieces of legislation, the cumulative increase in stock prices was about 10% above what would have been expected without an increase. Given the high (at the time) public valuations of large publicly traded for-profits, this represented a large increase in valuation. It is also worth noting that because for-profits have to get at least 10% of their revenue from non-federal sources or veteran’s benefits, some colleges may have had to increase tuition in order for students to take out private loans to stay clear of the so-called ‘90/10’ rule.

Both of these papers have some major limitations. Most notably, they are unable to account for whether students took out less in PLUS or private loans when subsidized loans and Pell Grants increased and do not look at net tuition after grant aid. However, these represent some of the best evidence of there being some truth to the Bennett Hypothesis for the most expensive colleges. But does this lend credence to the claim that tuition will become much less expensive if the federal government got out of the student aid business? As a researcher, I urge caution with that interpretation for two reasons. First, these studies only tell us what happens when more aid goes into the system. The relationship may not hold when less aid comes in. Second, these findings are based on relatively small changes in aid—often less than $1,000. These ‘local’ effects may not hold for a larger change.

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