Browsed by
Tag: student loans

How Student Loans Create Demand for Useless Degrees – Article by Josh Grossman

How Student Loans Create Demand for Useless Degrees – Article by Josh Grossman

The New Renaissance Hat
Josh Grossman
July 19, 2015

Last week, former Secretary of Education and US Senator Lamar Alexander wrote in the Wall Street Journal that a college degree is both affordable and an excellent investment. He repeated the usual talking point about how a college degree increases lifetime earnings by a million dollars, “on average.” That part about averages is perhaps the most important part, since all college degrees are certainly not created equal. In fact, once we start to look at the details, we find that a degree may not be the great deal many higher-education boosters seem to think it is.

In my home state of Minnesota, for example, the cost of obtaining a four-year degree at the University of Minnesota for a resident of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Manitoba, or Wisconsin is $100,720 (including room and board and miscellaneous fees). For private schools in Minnesota such as St. Olaf, however, the situation is even worse. A four-year degree at this institution will cost $210,920.

This cost compares to an average starting salary for 2014 college graduates of $48,707. However, like GDP numbers this number is misleading because it is an average of all individuals who obtained a four-year degree in any academic field. Regarding the average student loan debt of an individual who graduated in 2013, about 70 percent of these graduates left college with an average student loan debt of $28,400. This entails the average student starting to pay back these loans six months after graduation or upon leaving school without a degree. The reality of this situation is that assuming a student loan interest rate of 6.8 percent and a ten-year repayment period, the average student will be paying $326.83 every month for 120 months or a cumulative total re-payment of $39,219.28. Depending upon a student’s job, this amount can be a substantial monthly financial burden for the average graduate.

All Degrees Are Not of Equal Value

Unfortunately, there is no price incentive for students to choose degrees that are most likely to enable them to pay back loans quickly or easily. In other words, these federal student loans are subsidizing a lack of discrimination in students’ major choice. A person majoring in communications can access the same loans as a student majoring in engineering. Both of these students would also pay the same interest rate, which would not occur in a free market.

In an unhampered market, majors that have a higher probability of default should be required to pay a higher interest rate on money borrowed than majors with a lower probability of default. In summary, it is not just the federal government’s subsidization of student loans that is increasing the cost of college, but the fact that demand for low-paying and high-default majors is increasing, because loans for these majors are supplied at the same price as a major providing high salaries to its possessor with a low probability of default.

And which programs are the most likely to pay off for the student? The top five highest paying bachelor’s degrees include: petroleum engineering, actuarial mathematics, nuclear engineering, chemical engineering and electronics and communications engineering, while the top five lowest paying bachelor’s degrees are: animal science, social work, child development and psychology, theological and ministerial studies, and human development, family studies, and related services. Petroleum engineering has an average starting salary of $93,500 while animal science has an average starting salary of $32,700. This breaks down for a monthly salary for the petroleum engineer of $7,761.67 versus a person working in animal science with a monthly salary of $2,725. Based on the average monthly payment mentioned above, this would equate to a burden of 4.2 percent of monthly income (petroleum engineer) versus a burden of 12 percent of monthly income (animal science). This debt burden is exacerbated by the fact that it is now nearly impossible to have student loan debts wiped away even if one declares bankruptcy.

Ignoring Careers That Don’t Require a Degree

Meanwhile, there are few government loan programs geared toward funding an education in the trades. And yet, for many prospective college students, the trades might be a much more lucrative option. Using the example of plumbing, the average plumber earns $53,820 per year with the employer paying the apprentice a wage and training.

Acknowledging the fact that this average salary is for master plumbers, it still equates to a $20,000 salary difference between it and someone with a four-year degree in animal science while having no student loans as a bonus. Outside of earning a four-year degree in science, technology, engineering, math or, accounting with an average starting salary of $53,300, nursing with an average starting salary of $53,624, or as a family practice doctor on the lower end of physician pay of $161,000, society might be better served if parents and educators would stop using the canard that a four-year degree is always worth the cost outside of a few majors mentioned above. Encouraging students to consider the trades and parents to give their children the money they would spend on a four-year college degree to put a down payment on a house might be a better use of finite economic resources. The alternative of forcing the proverbial square peg into a round hole will condemn another generation to student debt slavery forcing them to put off buying a home or getting married.

Loans Drive Overall Demand

The root of the problem is intervention by the federal government in providing student loans. Since 1965 when President Johnson signed the Higher Education Act tuition, room, and board has increased from $1,105 per year to $18,943 in 2014–2015. This is an increase of 1,714 percent in 50 years. In addition, the Higher Education Act of 1965 created loans which are made by private institutions yet guaranteed by the federal government and capped at 6.8 percent. In case of default on the loans, the federal government — that is, the taxpayers — pick up the tab in order for these lenders to recover 95 cents on every dollar lent. Loaning these funds at below market interest rates and with the federal government backing up these risky loans has led to massive malinvestment as the percentage of high-school graduates enrolled in some form of higher education has increased from 10 percent before World War II to 70 percent by the 1990s. Getting a four-year degree in nearly any academic field seemed to be the way in which to enter or remain in the middle class.

But just as with the housing bubble, keeping interest below market levels while increasing the money supply in terms of loans — while having the taxpayer on the hook for a majority of these same loans — leads to an avalanche of defaults and is a recipe for disaster.

Josh Grossman is a social studies teacher in southeastern Minnesota. He enjoys reading anything he can about Austrian Economics or historical revisionism from the perspective of the Austrian School.

Your Student Loan Shall Not Be Forgiven – Article by Andrew Heaton

Your Student Loan Shall Not Be Forgiven – Article by Andrew Heaton

The New Renaissance Hat
Andrew Heaton
May 4, 2013

There’s a decent chance you know a recent graduate with a student loan balance that makes Greece look tight-fisted. That graduate might occasionally jabber on about “student loan forgiveness,” which is a popular notion among people with large student loans.

The concept behind forgiveness is that college graduates are sweating debt through their pores like vodka, so the government ought to swoop in and write them a check. This plan sounds pretty swell if you’re a recent graduate, but if you’re some kind of weirdo who pays income tax it means you get to foot that bill. So watch out.

One such proposal presently in embryonic form is H.R. 1330, The Student Loan Fairness Act. This particular scheme would create a new “10-10” standard for student loan repayment, in which individuals would repay one-tenth of their disposable income for 10 years, after which their debt would be forgiven.

You’ll notice that representatives usually come up with similar token gestures in order to make graduates appear to be seriously contributing to their loans. For instance, a congressman might suggest that an alumnus periodically toss fistfuls of loose change at their bursar, or set up a “repayment fund” by hoarding pennies in the ashtray of their car. Then at some point, as in H.R. 1330, Uncle Sam steps in and waives their debt away. Their onerous student loan is “forgiven.”

In the world of finance, “debt forgiveness” is not the same thing as regular forgiveness, wherein the aggrieved party absolves you of guilt but secretly nurses a grudge. “Debt forgiveness” simply means someone else pays your debt instead of you. Your tuition bill does not magically disappear, but is rather transferred via legal mechanisms to another shmuck. The federal government steps in to magnanimously fork over the remainder of your tab to a university, loan shark, etc. But “the government,” which sounds distant and vaguely sterile, is funded by you.

And by me, for that matter. Which is irritating, because I strenuously avoided going into debt during college. I attended a state school despite acceptance to a pretentious “boat shoes” school. I obtained my masters degree through a scholarship. I intentionally zigzagged around accruing debt because I had the foresight to realize that both of my majors were utterly useless and would never earn the money back.

Thus, I do not carry a significant debt burden. However, I am still poor, underemployed, and probably eligible for food stamps. Assuming I make enough money this year to even pay taxes, should the government confiscate my income and give it to people who opted for expensive private colleges or who chose even more frivolous majors than I did?

Ultimately someone has to repay all these student loans, be they alumni or taxpayers. I nominate Warren Buffett. He’s always whining about not paying enough taxes anyway. If you’re unfamiliar with the man, Warren Buffett is a wealthy investor from Omaha who apparently was the inspiration for the lead character in the Pixar film Up.

Between his net worth of $53.5 billion and his endearing toothbrush-bristle eyebrows, I would like him to adopt my entire generation as his surrogate grandchildren. Then we can ask Mr. Buffett to use his vast, undertaxed fortune to pay off our student loans.

Better yet, what if we treated student loans like the sorts of investments Mr. Buffett needed to calculate himself in order to become a finance mogul? What if we treated student loans more like private enterprise? For instance, if you approached me for a $40,000 loan to obtain a degree in engineering, I might regard that as a savvy venture, whereas I might deny a $400,000 request to study Jurassic art. In a few years, you would see a dramatic reduction in redundant arts and sciences majors like myself, and no one would ever speak of nurse or technician shortages again.

Student loans, unlike all other species of finance, are ineligible for discharge in bankruptcy. Why not remove this legal impediment, allowing graduates to decide for themselves the pros and cons of filing for Chapter 7, which results in a personal balance sheet purged of debt, but a horrendously blemished credit rating? This option is better than the current option for students, which consists of faking their own deaths. Couple that with student loan speculation, and you could potentially push students toward degrees they might actually benefit from. Allowing them the option of bankruptcy would create an opportunity for true “forgiveness” of debt.

The combined student debt of our nation’s college graduates is massive, sad, and oppressive. We need to come up with solutions to deal with it. But remember: forgiveness of debt punishes someone else. The spiritual world may run on confession and absolution, but the financial realm is still firmly ruled by Mammon and Karma.

Guest blogger Andrew Heaton is a former congressional staffer, now working as a writer and standup comedian in New York City. More of his wit and insight can be found at his website,

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Iterative Learning versus the Student-Debt Trap – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Iterative Learning versus the Student-Debt Trap – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Mr. Stolyarov explains why the structure of formal schooling does not teach the ways in which real achievements are attained. The worst obstacle to true, iterative learning is student debt that locks people into a particular path for most of their lives.

– “Iterative Learning versus the Student-Debt Trap” – Essay by G. Stolyarov II – The Rational Argumentator. This essay was originally published on the as a guest post on the “Education Bubble and Scam Report” website.
– “Reasons Not to Pursue a PhD” – Video by G. Stolyarov II
– “Advice for Most Recent High-School and College Graduates” – Video by G. Stolyarov II
– “Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Education” – Video by G. Stolyarov II

Iterative Learning versus the Student-Debt Trap – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Iterative Learning versus the Student-Debt Trap – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
December 18, 2012
This article was originally published as a guest post on the “Education Bubble and Scam Report” website.
Contemporary formal schooling inculcates a counterproductive and often stressful fallacy into millions of young people – particularly the best and brightest. The fallacy, which undermines the lives of many, is that, when it comes to learning, productivity, and achievement, you have to get it absolutely right the first time. Consider how grades are assigned in school. You complete an assignment or sit for a test – and if your work product is deficient in the teacher’s eyes, or you answer some questions incorrectly, your grade suffers. It does not matter if you learn from your mistakes afterward; the grade cannot be undone. The best you can do is hope that, on future assignments and tests, you do well enough that your average grade will remain sufficiently high. If it does not – if it takes you longer than usual to learn the material – then a poor grade will be a permanent blot on your academic record, if you care about such records. If you are below the age of majority and prohibited from owning substantial property or working for a living, grades may be a major measure of achievement in your eyes. Too many hits to your grades might discourage you or lead you to think that your future prospects are not as bright as you would wish.
But this is not how the real world works. This is not how learning works. This is not how great achievements are attained. It took me years to figure this out. I was one of those students who insisted on always attaining the highest grades in everything. I graduated first in my class in high school (while taking honors and Advanced Placement courses whenever they were offered) and second in college – with three majors. In high school especially, I sometimes found the grading criteria to be rather arbitrary and subjective, but I spent considerable time preparing my work and myself to meet them. While I did engage in prolific learning during my high-school years, the majority of that learning occurred outside the scope of my classes and was the result of self-study using books and the Internet. Unfortunately, my autonomous learning endeavors needed to be crammed into the precious little free time I had, because most of my time was occupied by attempting to conform my schoolwork to the demanding and often unforgiving expectations that needed to be met in order to earn the highest grades. I succeeded at that – but only through living by a regimen that would have been unsustainable in the long term: little sleep, little leisure, constant tension, and apprehension about the possibility of a single academic misstep. Yet now I realize that, whether I had succeeded or failed at the game of perfect grades, my post-academic achievements would have probably been unaffected.
How does real learning occur? It is not an all-or-nothing game. It is not about trying some task once and advancing if you succeed, or being shamed and despondent if you do not. Real learning is an iterative process. By a multitude of repetitions and attempts – each aiming to master the subject or make progress on a goal – one gradually learns what works and what does not, what is true and what is false. In many areas of life, the first principles are not immediately apparent or even known by anybody. The solution to a problem in those areas, instead of emerging by a straightforward (if sometimes time-consuming) deductive process from those first principles, can only be arrived at by induction, trial and error, and periodic adjustment to changing circumstances. Failure is an expected part of learning how to approach these areas, and no learning would occur in them if every failure were punished with either material deprivation or social condemnation.
Of course, not all failures are of the same sort. A failure to solve a math problem, while heavily penalized in school, is not at all detrimental in the real world. If you need to solve the problem, you just try, try again – as long as you recognize the difference between success and failure and have the free time and material comfort to make the attempts. On the other hand, a failure to yield to oncoming traffic when making a left turn could be irreversible and devastating. The key in approaching failure is to distinguish between safe failure and dangerous failure. A safe failure is one that allows numerous other iterations to get to the correct answer, behavior, or goal. A dangerous failure is one that closes doors, removes opportunities, and – worst of all – damages life. Learning occurs best when you can fail hundreds, even thousands, of times in rapid succession – at no harm or minimal harm to yourself and others. In such situations, failure is to be welcomed as a step along the way to success. On the other hand, if a failure can take away years of your life – either by shortening your life or wasting colossal amounts of time – then the very approach that might result in the failure should be avoided, unless there is no other way to achieve comparable goals. As a general principle, it is not the possibility of success or failure one should evaluate when choosing one’s pursuits, but rather the consequences of failure if it occurs.
Many contemporary societal institutions, unfortunately, are structured in a manner hostile to iterative learning. They rather encourage “all-in” investment into one or a few lines of endeavor – with uncertain success and devastating material and emotional consequences of failure. These institutions do not give second chances, except at considerable cost, and sometimes do not even give first chances because of protectionist barriers to entry. Higher education especially is pervaded by this problem.
At a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per year, college is an enormous bet. Many think that, by choosing the right major and the right courses of study within it, they could greatly increase their future earning potential. For some, this works out – though they are a diminishing fraction of college students. If a major turns out not to be remunerative, there may be some satisfaction from having learned the material, and this may be fine – as long as it is understood that this is a costly satisfaction indeed. Some will switch majors during their time in college, but this is often in itself an extremely expensive decision, as it prolongs the time over which one must pay tuition. For those who can afford either non-remunerative or serial college majors out of pocket, there is the opportunity cost of their time – but that is not the worst that can happen.
The worst fate certainly befalls those who finance their college education through student debt. This was a fate I happily avoided. I graduated college without having undertaken a penny of debt – ever – largely as a result of merit scholarships (and my choice of an institution that gave merit scholarships – a rarity these days). Millions of my contemporaries, however, are not so fortunate. For years hereafter, they will bear a recurring financial burden that will restrict their opportunities and push them along certain often stressful and unsustainable paths in life.
Student debt is the great disruptor of iterative learning. Such debt is assumed on the basis of the tremendously failure-prone expectation of a certain future monetary return capable of paying off the debt. Especially in post-2008 Western economies, this expectation is unfounded – no matter who one is or how knowledgeable, accomplished, or productive one might be. Well-paying jobs are hard to come by; well-paying jobs in one’s own field of study are even scarcer. The field narrows further when one considers that employment should not only be remunerative, but also accompanied by decent working conditions and compatible with a comfortable standard of living that reflects one’s values and goals.
Money is ultimately a means to life, not an end for its own sake. To pursue work that requires constant privation in other areas of life is not optimal, to say the least – but debt leaves one with no choice. There is no escape from student debt. Bankruptcy cannot annul it. One must keep paying it, to avoid being overwhelmed by the accumulated interest. Paying it off takes years for most, decades for some. By the time it is paid off (if it is), a lot of youth, energy, and vitality are lost. It follows some to the grave. If one pays it off as fast as possible, then one might still enjoy a sliver of that precious time window between formal education and senescence – but the intense rush and effort needed to achieve this goal limits one’s options for experimenting with how to solve problems, engage in creative achievement, and explore diverse avenues for material gain.
If you are in heavy debt, you take what income you can get, and you do not complain; you put all of your energy into one career path, one field, one narrow facet of existence – in the hope that the immediate returns are enough to get by and the long-term returns will be greater. If you wish to practice law or medicine, or obtain a PhD, your reliance on this mode of living and its hoped-for ultimate consequences is even greater. You may defer the payoff of the debt for a bit, but the ultimate burden will be even greater. Many lawyers do not start to have positive financial net worth until their thirties; many doctors do not reach this condition until their forties – and this is the reality for those who graduated before the financial crisis and its widespread unemployment fallout. The prospects of today’s young people are even dimmer, and perhaps the very expectation of long-term financial reward arising from educational debt (or any years-long expensive formal education) is no longer realistic. This mode of life is not only stressful and uncertain; it comes at the expense of family relationships, material comfort, leisure time, and experimentation with diverse income streams. Moreover, any serious illness, accident, or other life crisis can derail the expectation of a steady income and therefore render the debt a true destroyer of life. Failure is costly indeed on this conventional track of post-undergraduate formal schooling.
It may be difficult for many to understand that the conventionally perceived pathway to success is in fact one that exposes a person to the most dangerous sorts of failure. The best way forward is one of sustainable iterative work – a way that offers incremental benefits in the present without relying on huge payoffs in the future, all the while allowing enough time and comfort to experiment with life-improving possibilities at one’s discretion. Diversification is the natural companion of iteration. The more you try, the more you experiment, the more you learn and the more you can apply in a variety of contexts.
Having avoided the student-debt trap, I can personally attest to how liberating the experience of post-academic learning can be. Instead of pursuing graduate or professional school, I decided to take actuarial and other insurance-related examinations, where the cost of each exam is modest compared to a semester of college – and one can always try again if one fails. In the 3.5 years after graduating from college, I was able to obtain seven professional insurance designations, at a net profit to myself. I have ample time to try for more designations still. My employment offers me the opportunity to engage in creative work in a variety of capacities, and I focus on maximizing my rate of productivity on the job so as to achieve the benefits of iterative learning and avoid the stress of an accumulated workload. I could choose where I wanted to live, and had the resources to purchase a house with a sizable down payment. Other than a mortgage, which I am paying ahead of schedule, I have no debt of any sort. Even the mortgage makes me somewhat uncomfortable – hence my desire to pay it off as rapidly as possible – but every payment gets me closer to fully owning a large, tangible asset that I use every day. In the meantime, I already have a decent amount of time for leisure, exercise, independent study, intellectual activism, and family interactions.
My life, no doubt, has its own challenges and stresses; anyone’s situation could be better, and I can certainly conceive of improvements for my own – but I have the discretionary time needed to plan for and pursue such improvements. Moreover, the way of iterative learning is not fully realizable in all aspects of today’s world. Comparatively, I have fewer vulnerabilities than debt-ridden post-undergraduate students of my age, but I am not immune to the ubiquitous stressors of contemporary life. We continue to be surrounded by dangers and tasks where it is truly necessary not to fail the first time. As technology advances and we come to life in a safer, healthier world, the sources for life-threatening failure will diminish, and the realm of beneficial trial-and-error failure will broaden. The key in the meantime is to keep the failure points in one’s own life to a minimum. Yes, automobile accidents, crime, and serious illnesses always have a non-zero probability of damaging one’s life – but even that probability can be diminished through vigilance, care, and technology. To avoid introducing vulnerability into one’s life, one should always live within one’s present means – not expectations of future income – and leave oneself with a margin of time and flexibility for the achievement of any goal, financial or not. Productivity, efficiency, and skill are all welcome assets, if they are used to prevent, rather than invite, stress, anxiety, and physical discomfort.
Learning absolutely anything of interest and value is desirable, as long as the cost in time and money – including the opportunity cost – is known and can be absorbed using present resources. This principle applies to any kind of formal schooling – or to the purchase of cars, major articles of furniture, and electronic equipment. If you enjoy it, can afford it out of pocket, and can think of no better way to use your time and money – then by all means pursue it with a clear conscience. If you cannot afford it, or you need the money for something more important, then wait until you have the means, and find other ways to use and enjoy your time in the interim. With the Internet, it is possible to learn many skills and concepts at no monetary cost at all. It is also possible to pursue relatively low-cost professional designation programs in fields where sitting in a classroom is not a requirement for entry.
Remember that success is attained through many iterations of a variety of endeavors. Try to make each iteration as inexpensive as possible in terms of time and money. Except in times of acute crisis where there are no other options, avoid all forms of debt – with the possible exception of a mortgage, since it is preferable to the alternative of renting and giving all of the rent away to another party. Do not put all of your time and energy into a single field, a single path, a single expectation. You are a multifaceted human being, and your job in life is to develop a functional approach to the totality of existence – not just one sub-specialty therein. Remember, above all, never to lose your individuality, favored way of living, and constructive relationships with others in the pursuit of any educational or career path. You should be the master of your work and learning – not the other way around.
Federal Student Aid and the Law of Unintended Consequences – Article by Richard Vedder

Federal Student Aid and the Law of Unintended Consequences – Article by Richard Vedder

The New Renaissance Hat
Richard Vedder
July 8, 2012

RICHARD VEDDER is the Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor of Economics at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He received his B.A. from Northwestern University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Illinois. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Investor’s Business Daily, and is the author of several books, including The American Economy in Historical Perspective and Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much.

The following is adapted from a speech delivered on May 10, 2012, at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C.

Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.

FEDERAL STUDENT financial assistance programs are costly, inefficient, byzantine, and fail to serve their desired objectives. In a word, they are dysfunctional, among the worst of many bad federal programs.

These programs are commonly rationalized on three grounds: on the grounds that assuring more young people a higher education has positive spillover effects for the country; on the grounds that higher education promotes equal economic opportunity (or, as the politicians say, that it is “a ticket to achieving the American Dream”); or on the grounds that too few students would go to college in the absence of federal loan programs, since private markets for loans to college students are defective.

All three of these arguments are dubious at best. The alleged positive spillover effects of sending more and more Americans to college are very difficult to measure. And as the late Milton Friedman suggested to me shortly before his death, they may be more than offset by negative spillover effects. Consider, for instance, the relationship between spending by state governments on higher education and their rate of economic growth. Controlling for other factors important in growth determination, the relationship between education spending and economic growth is negative or, at best, non-existent.

What about higher education being a vehicle for equal economic opportunity or income equality? Over the last four decades, a period in which the proportion of adults with four-year college degrees tripled, income equality has declined. (As a side note, I do not know the socially optimal level of economic inequality, and the tacit assumption that more such equality is always desirable is suspect; my point here is simply that, in reality, higher education today does not promote income equality.)

Finally, in regards to the argument that capital markets for student loans are defective, if financial institutions can lend to college students on credit cards and make car loans to college students in large numbers—which they do—there is no reason why they can’t also make student educational loans.

Despite the fact that the rationales for federal student financial assistance programs are very weak, these programs are growing rapidly. The Pell Grant program did much more than double in size between 2007 and 2010. Although it was designed to help poor people, it is now becoming a middle class entitlement. Student loans have been growing eight to ten percent a year for at least two decades, and, as is well publicized, now aggregate to one trillion dollars of debt outstanding—roughly $25,000 on average for the 40,000,000 holders of the debt. Astoundingly, student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt.

Nor is it correct to assume that most of this debt is held by young people in their twenties and early thirties. The median age of those with loan obligations today is around 33, and approximately 40 percent of the debt is held by people 40 years of age or older. So when politicians talk about maintaining low interest loans to help kids in college, more often than not the help is going to middle-aged individuals long gone from the halls of academia.

With this as an introduction, let me outline eight problems with federal student grant and loan programs. The list is not exclusive.

(1) Student loan interest rates are not set by the forces of supply and demand, but by the political process. Normally, interest rates are a price used to allocate scarce resources; but when that price is manipulated by politicians, it leads to distortions in the use of resources. Since student loan interest rates are always set at below-market rates, too much money is borrowed for college. Currently those interest rates are extremely low, with a key rate of 3.4 percent—which, after adjusting for inflation, is approximately zero. Moreover, both the president and Governor Romney say they want to continue that low interest rate after July 1, when it is supposed to double. This aggravates an already bad situation, and provides a perfect example of the fundamental problem facing our nation today: politicians pushing programs whose benefits are visible and immediate (even if illusory, as suggested above), while their extraordinarily high costs are less visible and more distant in time.

(2) In the real world, interest rates vary with the prospects that the borrower will repay the loan. In the surreal world of student loans, the brilliant student completing an electrical engineering degree at M.I.T. pays the same interest rate as the student majoring in ethnic studies at a state university who has a GPA below 2.0. The former student will almost certainly graduate and get a job paying $50,000 a year or more, whereas the odds are high the latter student will fail to graduate and will be lucky to make $30,000 a year.

Related to this problem, colleges themselves have no “skin in the game.” They are responsible for allowing loan commitments to occur, but they face no penalties or negative consequences when defaults are extremely high, imposing costs on taxpayers.

(3) Perhaps most importantly, federal student grant and loan programs have contributed to the tuition price explosion. When third parties pay a large part of the bill, at least temporarily, the customer’s demand for the service rises and he is not as sensitive to price as he would be if he were paying himself. Colleges and universities take advantage of that and raise their prices to capture the funds that ostensibly are designed to help students. This is what happened previously in health care, and is what is currently happening in higher education.

(4) The federal government now has a monopoly in providing student loans. Until recently, at least it farmed out the servicing of loans to a variety of private financial service firms, adding an element of competition in terms of quality of service, if not price. But the Obama administration, with its strong hostility to private enterprise, moved to establish a complete monopoly. One would think the example of the U.S. Postal Service today, losing taxpayer money hand over fist and incapable of making even the most obviously needed reforms, would be enough proof against the prudence of such a move. And remember: because of highly irresponsible fiscal policies, the federal government borrows 30 or 40 percent of the money it currently spends, much of that from overseas. Thus we are incurring long-term obligations to foreigners to finance loans to largely middle class Americans to go to college. This is not an appropriate use of public funds at a time of dangerously high federal budget deficits.

(5) Those applying for student loans or Pell Grants are compelled to complete the FAFSA form, which is extremely complex, involves more than 100 questions, and is used by colleges to administer scholarships (or, more accurately, tuition discounts). Thus colleges are given all sorts of highly personal and private information on incomes, wealth, debts, child support, and so forth. A car dealer who demanded such information so that he could see how badly he could gouge you would either be out of business or in jail within days or weeks. But it is commonplace in higher education because of federal student financial assistance programs.

(6) As federal programs have increased the number of students who enroll in college, the number of new college graduates now far exceeds the number of new managerial, technical and professional jobs—positions that college graduates have traditionally taken. A survey by Northeastern University estimates that 54 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed or unemployed. Thus we currently have 107,000 janitors and 16,000 parking lot attendants with bachelor’s degrees, not to mention bartenders, hair dressers, mail carriers, and so on. And many of those in these limited-income occupations are struggling to pay off student loan obligations.

Connected to this is the fact that more and more kids are going to college who lack the cognitive skills, the discipline, the academic preparation, or the ambition to succeed academically. They simply cannot or do not master well much of the rather complex materials that college students are expected to learn. As a result, many students either do not graduate or fail to graduate on time. I have estimated that only 40 percent or less of Pell Grant recipients get degrees within six years—an extremely high dropout or failure rate. No one has seriously questioned that statistic—a number, by the way, that the federal government does not publish, no doubt because it is embarrassingly low.

Also related is the fact that, in an attempt to minimize this problem, colleges have lowered standards, expecting students to read and write less while giving higher grades for lesser amounts of work. Surveys show that students spend on average less than 30 hours per week on academic work—less than they spend on recreation.  As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, critical thinking skills among college seniors on average are little more than among freshmen.

(7) As suggested to me a couple of days ago by a North Carolina judge, based on a case in his courtroom, with so many funds so readily available there is a temptation and opportunity for persons to acquire low interest student loans with the intention of dropping out of school quickly to use the proceeds for other purposes. (In the North Carolina student loan fraud case, it was to start up a t-shirt business.)

(8) Lazy or mediocre students can get greater subsidies than hard-working and industrious ones. Take Pell Grants. A student who works extra hard and graduates with top grades after three years will receive only half as much money as a student who flunks several courses and takes six years to finish or doesn’t obtain a degree at all. In other words, for recipients of federal aid there are disincentives to excel.

* * *
If the Law of Unintended Consequences ever applied, it is in federal student financial assistance. Programs created with the noblest of intentions have failed to serve either their customers or the nation well. In the 1950s and 1960s, before these programs were large, American higher education enjoyed a Golden Age. Enrollments were rising, lower-income student access was growing, and American leadership in higher education was becoming well established. In other words, the system flourished without these programs. Subsequently, massive growth in federal spending and involvement in higher education has proved counterproductive.

With the ratio of debt to GDP rising nationally, and the federal government continuing to spend more and more taxpayer money on higher education at an unsustainable long-term pace, a re-thinking of federal student financial aid policies is a good place to start in meeting America’s economic crisis.