student loans

What Trump’s First 100 Days Might Mean for Education Policy

President-Elect Donald Trump has released his plans for his first 100 days in office. After outlining proposals for term limits, a trade war, and mass deportations, the plan includes the following paragraph on education policy:

School Choice And Education Opportunity Act. Redirects education dollars to give parents the right to send their kid to the public, private, charter, magnet, religious or home school of their choice. Ends common core, brings education supervision to local communities. It expands vocational and technical education, and make 2 and 4-year college more affordable.

The details are far from clear, but it appears that his education policy will focus on three areas:

1. School choice

Trump has the right instinct on school choice, but if he is planning to promote a national voucher program, then he’s going about it the wrong way. He has previously pledged to dedicate $20 billion in federal funds to school choice policies, and stated that he would “give states the option to allow these funds to follow the student to the public or private school they attend” as well as using federal carrots to get states to expand choice policies even further. Expanding educational opportunity is admirable, but using the federal government to do so is misguided. As David Boaz explained more than a decade ago in the Cato Handbook for Congress, the case against federal involvement in education:

is not based simply on a commitment to the original Constitution, as important as that is. It also reflects an understanding of why the Founders were right to reserve most subjects to state, local, or private endeavor. The Founders feared the concentration of power. They believed that the best way to protect individual freedom and civil society was to limit and divide power. Thus it was much better to have decisions made independently by 13–or 50–states, each able to innovate and to observe and copy successful innovations in other states, than to have one decision made for the entire country. As the country gets bigger and more complex, and especially as government amasses more power, the advantages of decentralization and divided power become even greater.

A federal voucher program would very likely lead to increased federal regulation of private schools over time, especially after a new administration takes over that is less friendly to the concept of school choice. As we’ve seen in some states, misguided regulations can severely undermine the effectiveness of school choice and induce a stifling conformity among schools. Moreover, as I’ve explained previously, those regulations are harder to block or repeal at the federal level than at the state level and their negative effects would be far more widespread:

When a state adopts regulations that undermine its school choice program, it’s lamentable but at least the ill effects are localized. Other states are free to chart a different course. However, if the federal government regulates a national school choice program, there is no escape. Moreover, state governments are more responsive to citizens than the distant federal bureaucracy. Citizens have a better shot at blocking or reversing harmful regulations at the state and local level rather than the federal level.

That said, the Trump administration can promote school choice in more productive and constitutionally sound ways. The federal government does have constitutional authority in Washington, D.C., where it currently operates the Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). The OSP should be expanded into a universal ESA that empowers all D.C. families to spend the funds on a wide variety of educational expenses in addition to private school tuition, including tutors, textbooks, online courses, curricular materials, and more, as well as save unused funds for later expenses, such as college. The Trump administration should explore similar options in areas where the federal government has jurisdiction, such as on Native American lands and military bases.

Good Question: What to Do Before Major Change

“Dean Dad” Matt Reed has responded to my rebuttal to him Tuesday, and I appreciate his engaging me in discussion. His main point now: The student loan default problem is not mainly about big total debts, but smaller debts that are hard to pay off because the students dropped out before getting a degree.

I agree. Indeed, that was pretty much the point of my Wall Street Journal article that kicked off the exchange. As I wrote:

Many dropouts have loans, which are much harder to repay when one fails to finish, or gets a worthless degree. Borrowers on the academic margins, who often attend community colleges and for-profit schools, likely struggle the most to repay even though their debts tend to be relatively small. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that 34% of borrowers with debts between $1,000 and $5,000 defaulted, versus only 18% with debts in excess of $100,000, a level of debt associated with advanced degrees.

Where the confusion might lie is that I thought in his response to me Reed was suggesting that a major problem for anyone coming out of community college was that the minimum wage was too low and, connected to that, so were the wages of entry-level jobs. This was based on the following:

Why are former students having a hard time paying debt back? Mostly because entry-level jobs don’t pay very well. But McCluskey never addresses either the supply of entry-level jobs, or the minimum wage. 

Knowing that Reed did not mean to include graduates among “former students” makes his comments about low wages less alarming. Still, his solution – raise low wages instead of requiring evidence of college readiness – seems a broad, slow, and dubious way to deal with the debt problem. “Broad” because it calls for, essentially, overhauling a huge part of the economy as opposed to specifically reforming students loans; “slow” because doing that would take a pretty long time; and “dubious” because there is a lot of evidence that raising the minimum wage has substantial negative effects.

In addition to raising the minimum wage, Reed calls for “free (or much less expensive) community college.”

Free community college would probably solve the problem of community college noncompleters leaving with debt, depending on how one accounted for living expenses, but it comes with its own set of troubles. The first is that we would likely still have lots of people not finishing, only the costs would be borne more by taxpayers and less by students. The second is that, unless “free” were somehow focused on the poor, you would have taxpayers subsidizing well-to-do people. Recent data show about 39 percent of dependent undergraduate students at community colleges, and about 54 percent of independent students, are from the upper half of the income distribution.  About 16 and 28 percent are from the highest income quartile. Then there is the question of how to pay for this, especially if making it free leads to even more people enrolling. And will community colleges be able to handle all of the new students, or will they have to ration spots? What will encourage students to complete their studies as quickly as possible?

In Washington DC, the Tax Consumers Always Win

Politicians typically try to win votes by giving away money. Being a political Santa Claus usually is seen as more rewarding than being a federal Ebenezer Scrooge. Which is why there’s now a $1.2 trillion federal student loan program which, the New York Times politely observed, “has been removed from the norms and values of prudent lending.”

Federally subsidized student loans have become a political favorite, as Uncle Sam added $82 billion to his loan portfolio in 2015. An incredible 42 million Americans have outstanding debt; 6100 schools have collected subsidized loans. Congress has created an educational “entitlement” akin to Medicare and Social Security, only for the young.

A lot of that cash will never be repaid. As of 2014, 28 percent of those whose loans became due in 2009 were in default. Anticipated lifetime default rates for cohorts 2007 through 2011 steadily increase from 15.9 percent to 18.4 percent. The Huffington Post’s Shahien Nasiripour warned: “Federal student loans made in recent years resemble the toxic subprime mortgage loans that helped cause the Great Recession.”

Who Could Have Seen That Coming?

Several recent news stories report information that was hardly surprising to anyone who has studied economics or read Cato at Liberty. We talk a lot about unintended or unanticipated consequences around here, but in these cases the consequences were anticipated and even predicted by a lot of people.

First, consider this front-page story from the Washington Post on Monday:

The [fast-food] industry could be ready for another jolt as a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour nears in the District and as other campaigns to boost wages gain traction around the country. About 30 percent of the restaurant industry’s costs come from salaries, so burger-flipping robots — or at least super-fast ovens that expedite the process — become that much more cost-competitive if the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is doubled….

Many chains are already at work looking for ingenious ways to take humans out of the picture, threatening workers in an industry that employs 2.4 million wait staffers, nearly 3 million cooks and food preparers and many of the nation’s 3.3 million cashiers….

The labor-saving technology that has so far been rolled out most extensively — kiosk and ­tablet-based ordering — could be used to replace cashiers and the part of the wait staff’s job that involves taking orders and bringing checks. 

Who could have predicted that? Well, Cato vice president Jim Dorn in his 2014 testimony to the Maryland legislature. Or Bill Gates around the same time.

Then there’s this all-too-typical AP story out of California:

Yet More Empirical Evidence That Yes, Federal Student Aid Fuels College Price Inflation

For a few years, I have been posting an evolving list of empirical studies that have found that federal student aid programs help fuel rampant college price inflation. Why? Because I continually encounter people, often who work for or in higher education, who insist that there is no meaningful empirical evidence of big subsidies enabling big price increases, even if the possibility makes mammoth intuitive and theoretical sense.

A Big, Tiny Deal on Student Loans

After a bit of a false start last week, it sounds again like the Senate is on the brink of a bipartisan compromise that will link rates on federal student loans to overall interest rates. Given all the hubbub that’s surrounded the loans, that’s big news. Given the actual change that would take place, it’s tiny.

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