To extend credit to people in the knowledge that they are unlikely to repay is decried by some as predatory lending. Those suspected of engaging in this practice will face scorn from regulators and opprobrium in the media.
Yet predatory is not an inaccurate sobriquet for government policy towards the funding of higher education. So doggedly have administrations around the world pursued the goal of giving everyone a degree, that they haven’t stopped to ponder whether this drive benefits taxpayers — or, indeed, students themselves.
As so often with government-induced disasters, the original motivation was laudable. Because human capital accumulation raises worker productivity and therefore salaries, higher education was viewed as a driver of increased prosperity and social mobility. Moreover, since higher productivity raises output and tax revenue, having more educated workers became not just a private but a social good in politicians’ minds.
However, the crisis and its aftermath have forced an unwanted reckoning. Even as enrolment rates have climbed strongly, rising from 49 to 69 per cent among US high school graduates — especially those from lower-income backgrounds — between the 1970s and 2016, and reaching 49 per cent among all 18-year-olds in Britain, the expected returns have failed to materialise for many.
A 2014 report from the Urban Institute, using a conservative methodology, found 25 per cent of US bachelor’s degree holders working in occupations for which they were overqualified. In Britain, as many as 16 per cent of those in employment between the ages of 16 and 64 were “overeducated” in 2015, up from 13 per cent in 2006.
Overqualification need not be a concern so long as it’s the product of choice. It is generally associated with lower median earnings than occupations which require a university degree. But plenty of less-than-well-paid jobs, such as journalism, political activism and creative writing, feature a preponderance of university graduates in their ranks.
The problem arises when overqualification stems from graduates’ inability to find suitable work.
It may be that their specific skills do not match the needs of firms – which might require more introverted computer scientists and fewer eloquent philosophers — or that the skills taught in universities do not add up to much valuable human capital. Economist Bryan Caplan has persuasively contended that college education is more a signalling device than a provider of hard skills. If that is the case, then encouraging university attendance will not benefit those at the bottom of the graduate pile, let alone those who fail to complete their studies.
The scale of the student debt burden in both America and Britain suggests that many are being failed by the system.
Outstanding higher education loans in the United States recently passed the $1.5 trillion mark, up from under $500 billion in 2006. In the UK, student debt stands at just over £100 billion, but it has more than doubled since 2011 and continues to increase rapidly. Aggregate amounts can only convey a crude picture, but the rapidity with which loans outstanding have mounted is at least suggestive that some borrowers are giving little thought to whether borrowing is a good idea.
On an individual level, the problem is not stratospheric indebtedness. Recently, the Wall Street Journal profiled a 37-year-old Utah orthodontist whose balance exceeds $1 million and will in a few years surpass $2 million, as his $1,600 monthly repayment doesn’t suffice to cover the monthly interest expense.
But that’s an exceptional case. Moreover, those who carry six-figure balances are often lawyers and medical doctors whose training raises their lifetime earnings by a multiple of the cost of their degree. Even making conservative assumptions about physician and attorney salaries ($150,000 and $100,000, respectively) and comparing them to the 75th percentile of U.S. income-earners ($65,000), the lifetime salary boost of a medical or legal education would justify an investment upwards of $500,000.
The amount borrowed is a poor predictor of whether a borrower will default. According to a recent analysis by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, 27 percent of borrowers entering higher education in 2003-04 had defaulted on their payments twelve years later. Such rates of non-repayment are extraordinary, on a par with payday and other high-cost short-term credit used in times of stress.
Perhaps surprisingly, default rates are highest among those who borrowed the least.