Amid the debate over student loans — President Joe Biden’s administration tried and failed to forgive some of the debt, which starts accruing interest this month after a three-year pause — a crucial question has often been overlooked: Who benefits the most from student loans? It’s not necessarily the students.

The main beneficiaries are colleges and other accredited post-secondary educational institutions, which receive the loans as transfers from the federal government via student borrowers. There are few strings attached. Colleges do not pay the loans back, nor do they pay interest to the government. Students do that.

Yes, students benefit from going to college, but not always. A Federal Reserve survey found that about half of the respondents who went to college said the lifetime financial benefits of their education were about the same as or less than the lifetime financial costs. Those with outstanding student loans were even more pessimistic.

The financial costs of college have risen substantially in recent decades. Overall consumer prices have quadrupled since 1980, but tuition and fees are 16 times higher, with the fastest growth since the early 2000s. The rise in tuition has been matched by a rise in student loan debt, currently at $1.6 trillion.

Research suggests that higher student loans lead to higher tuition, creating a spiral of financial costs. For every dollar of subsidized federal student loans a university received, according to one study, it raised its tuition by 60 cents. And while another study found a smaller effect of student loans on tuition, and one that varied over time, it stands to reason that the structure and wide availability of the federal student loan program make it easier for colleges to charge high tuition rates.

And those higher tuition rates alter the value proposition of a college education – whether a graduate’s earnings will be higher than the cost of college. The worst financial outcomes are for students who take out loans but do not complete the degree. It’s not uncommon to start but not finish college: 40% of students at four-year institutions do not receive a degree, and even fewer do at two-year colleges. Black and Hispanic students are far more likely than white students to take out student loans and then not complete a degree.


The costs of high tuition affect other areas as well. One study found that increasing tuition raised the likelihood that students would continue living with their parents instead of with roommates. Another showed that students dealt with higher tuition by taking on more debt — making it harder for them to buy a house and build wealth.

A 2018 report from the center-left think tank Third Way studied the risk-return of going to college. If college were free, it estimates, the chance that an entering student would come out ahead is 78%. If the cost were $50,000, that falls to 50%. Cost is not the only factor, of course; the odds are substantially higher for students majoring in STEM fields and business than in the arts and humanities.

The point is not to prevent students from making their own choices, even if they affect the financial risks of college. The point is that these are risks which colleges should help insure against.

If the goal is to increase the chances that college will pay off for students, then one vital step is to keep tuition costs down. Eleven states currently cap the growth in tuition at their four-year colleges. And most states have set up oversight committees for the tuition-setting process at their state-funded institutions. At the federal level, the government could make the receipt of loans contingent on cost-containment measures.

Even more critical is ensuring that students graduate. Colleges can help by creating programs to raise completion rates. At Georgia State University, for example, the completion rate rose by more than 20 percentage points in 10 years because the university identified and supported at-risk students.

The federal government can do even more. It can start by sharing its College Scorecard information, which shows completion rates by institution and major, with all applicants for student loans. It should also pressure colleges to raise completion rates. Unlike the government’s proposed gainful-employment regulation, which sets minimum standards for earnings for graduates of degree programs at private for-profit colleges, the effort to raise completions should apply to such programs at all institutions.

The higher cost of getting a college education — and the increased risks of attending college — are in part a result of federal policy, so it is the federal government’s responsibility to act. Doing nothing will have significant consequences not only for current students, but also for anyone considering college in the future.

Claudia Sahm is the founder of Sahm Consulting and a former Federal Reserve economist. She is the creator of the Sahm rule, a recession indicator.

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