Student debt

Making schools pay 20% of the debt obligations of former students facing loan default would lead to fewer but more effective universities and more prepared students enrolled.

ATHENS, Ohio —

Not only have 45 million U.S. college students racked up more than $1.5 trillion in loan debt — more than the total for all outstanding credit card or car loan debt — more than 5 million student borrowers are delinquent or in default on their loans, and an even larger number have a loan deferment or “forbearance” – that is, they’ve been given permission to temporarily not repay their debt.

This massive record of nonpayment far surpasses that found for private debt such as home equity loans, car loans or credit card obligations. Literally hundreds of billions of dollars in obligations are at risk of nonpayment.

What to do? While some nonpayment of loans results from tragic unforeseen circumstances such as illness or the death of a parent, a very large portion of it is highly predictable and avoidable.

U.S. colleges and universities admit many students who have very dubious prospects of graduating and/or of earning sufficient amounts of money upon finishing college to be willing or able to repay their loan obligations.

Why is this the case? Colleges, hungry for the tuition revenue students provide often knowingly admit students with very low prospects for graduation. There are zero incentives for schools not to admit these individuals, but positive inducements to accept them.

Yet for large portions of these students, attending college leads to bitter disappointment and financial hardship: They fail to graduate, thereby becoming stigmatized as academic failures, and they pile up debt obligations that are not even dischargeable in bankruptcy.

How can we dramatically reduce this problem? The creators of the problem are largely colleges and universities that knowingly admit large numbers of problematic students. We need to change the incentive system, making schools face financial consequences for accepting students with shaky academic backgrounds who are unlikely to complete college. Put more colloquially, colleges need to have some “skin in the game.”

As the noted financial scholar Alex J. Pollock, former president and CEO of the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, suggests: Make the schools pay 20% of the debt obligations of former students facing loan delinquency or default.

Doing this would have enormous positive effects. Colleges would be incentivized to admit fewer academically unqualified students, reducing the emotional and financial pain and distress faced by individuals who are better off pursuing other options rather than college.

The Government Accountability Office acknowledges that student loan programs are a financial drain on the federal budget and the “skin in the game” proposal would effectively reduce and possibly end it.

In the private market economy, the principle of “creative destruction” moves resources to more valuable uses as companies close down or are forced to restructure for not adapting to changing tastes or potential efficiencies.

The “creative destruction” principle is needed in higher education also, where colleges use government subsidies and private philanthropy to cushion themselves from market forces.

As falling birth rates lead to declining enrollments in coming years, the “death” of schools that fail to provide high value to their students should be welcomed. Skin in the games will help achieve that needed transition to fewer but more effective universities.

Richard Vedder, senior fellow at the Independent Institute, Oakland, Calif., is distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University and author of the new Independent Institute book, “Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America.” He can be reached at Bentley Annex 316, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701.